Book: B01786HSBM (F)

Previous: Chapter Five
Next: Chapter Seven

Chapter Six

 

“Oh dear, sweet...” I dismounted, running a hand through my frost-strewn hair as I fell to my knees in a broken promise, not caring what I looked like to the guards standing outside the palace gate.

Never, ever would I put myself through that again. I had spent the first week of travel drinking the healers’ vile tea and recovering from my cold only to spend the final leg of our journey caught in an icy snowstorm that rivaled any Jerar had ever seen. I swore the moment I stepped foot in the capital city I would never push myself that hard again.

“My lady.” Paige was working hard to hide her smile. “They are waiting for us.”

I forced myself to stand, brushing off a layer of powder and scrambling to make myself presentable. Not that anyone would be able to recognize me under the layers of fur. I looked like a shaggy snow beast. The kind that terrorized children in cautionary tales told by their parents. Ella would be proud. She hated winter more than anyone else I knew.

Paige walked over to the two soldiers standing at attention. “I am escorting Lady Mage Ryiah of Demsh’aa, Prince Darren’s intended—”

She didn’t even get to finish. The palace gates swung open and one of the men grinned. “About time. You two were supposed to arrive this morning. His highness has been pacing the grounds like a caged animal. He’ll probably find you before you even reach the doors.”

The cold, my exhaustion, and everything else were instantly forgotten. Paige had to sprint to keep up with my progress as I threw my reins to the waiting hostler and searched the path ahead. I wasn’t sure if I should be excited or nervous, but at the moment the only thing I knew was that my pulse was louder than whatever Paige was trying to say.

A hand touched my arm and I turned to face my knight.

She pointed to the left.

I looked.

Saw the gardens and the marble statue in the fountain’s center. Saw the wandering nobility in their warm winter cloaks. And then I saw a scruffy gray mutt matted with snow and the person standing beside it, one hand absently rubbing its head—the other getting ready to throw a stick.

My heart stopped. Breathe, Ryiah. Darren looked… I didn’t have words. Has it really only been five months? He was standing there in a dark brocade cloak and black leather boots. I was immediately reminded of the day we met. There was that gold chain hanging from his neck and the fading sun’s rays caught the stone at its base, a hematite oval—the signature gem of the Crown. Ink-black, jaw-length locks framed his face, bangs falling just past his eyes.

I exhaled slowly.

Whatever people said about Blayne, he couldn’t hold a candle to his brother.

Who had just looked up from his dog to catch me staring. Only this time I didn’t have to feel guilty or ashamed. Because he was mine. And I was allowed to stare.

And he was staring right back.

For a second our gazes were locked and neither of us moved.

Then he was running and I was running, and we didn’t stop until my arms were wrapped around his neck and his were locked around my waist, his face pressed in my hair.

“Five months is too long,” he rasped.

My eyes watered, and I told myself I would never let go. “You smell like home.”

I felt him crack a smile. “Would you believe me if I told you the same?”

I nodded and then held still, surrounded by pine and cloves, and for just once everything was right. The two of us in the middle of the courtyard, snow falling softly around us, lost to the rest of the world. I was content to stay that way for the rest of my life.

“Ah, and I see the prestigious lowborn has returned.”

I started to pull away, but Darren held tight and growled at his brother who had managed to make an appearance unnoticed.

“Not now, Blayne.”

“You don’t have to use such a surly tone, Darren, I was merely making an observation.” The crown prince’s gaze fell to me, and he wrinkled his nose. “Might I suggest a nice bath before greeting anyone from court.”

My cheeks burned as the heir to the kingdom sauntered away, a swing in his step.

“Don’t listen to him.” Darren’s tone was resigned. “Blayne is just worried about the Pythians’ arrival. Father has been… difficult.”

I shook my head and stepped out of his embrace. “You don’t need to explain.” Blayne and I shared a mutual dislike. The king’s temperament had no part in that.

I sighed. “Besides, Paige and I have been riding all day. I should probably get cleaned up before anyone else sees us.”

“Then let me take you to your chambers.” The non-heir caught my wrist and pulled me forward.

“What about Paige?” I glanced at my knight. She was trying to pick gray dog hair off her breeches with a sour expression. Wolf, seemingly oblivious to her reaction, continued to bark at her, demanding a playmate.

I stifled a smile.

“While you are on palace grounds, there is no need for a personal guard.” Darren led me to the castle doors. “She will be on rotation with the rest of the King’s Regiment.”

“Oh.” I followed him inside, and then froze as soon as I set foot on the marble. That’s how long it took to recall his words. “My…chambers?”

He gave me a crooked grin. “You have the room next to mine. The servants spent the last week preparing it. Once we are wed, it will be a sitting room, but until then it’s where you will stay during your time here. Your ladies-in-waiting have been…”

Darren rattled on, detailing the other changes that had taken place, but my thoughts had already been swept up by the first.

My own room. With ladies-in-waiting—my ladies-in-waiting. I swallowed, suddenly nervous. I had managed to avoid most of the changes from my new status in Ferren. The capital was a different story. I knew the king wouldn’t let me run around in training breeches and a shirt unless I was in the practice courts.

What if they expected me to act like my new station? Highborn, well mannered, and fluent in whatever flowery tongue the nobility expected? I hadn’t the slightest idea how to act like a true lady of court. Ella did, but she wasn’t here to help guide me.

Not for the first time, I missed my best friend. Not just because she could tell me what to do. But so that she could hold my hand. We had gone through everything together.

For five years she had helped guide me through training and Darren and the etiquette of court; this time, I was on my own.

****

I couldn’t keep from gawking even after Darren had finished showing me to my new chambers. This was it. My own room. In the king’s palace. As the non-heir’s future wife.

Nothing would ever be the same.

Two ladies-in-waiting had already called upon some servants to draw a bath in the paneled wood tub of a small adjoining room. I almost died of delight when I stepped in and the water was still steeping hot. I stayed until the water ran cold, rubbing my skin raw, and then soaking in the lavender-scented bubbles a bit longer.

When I finally did step out freshly pressed linens were waiting. Bliss.

The nearest girl, Celine, a young thing with long, brown tresses, helped dress me in one of the many gowns the king had commissioned for my stay. As the other styled my hair, Celine was quick to note that my first responsibility would be to visit the palace seamstress the following morning. I was in need of a whole new wardrobe. The beautiful clothes I had wouldn’t begin to cover my appearances in court. Not of a princess-to-be. Even one who spent most of her time as a warrior mage.

I spent some more time taking in my surroundings: the flowery design adorning the walls, the delicate lace covering of a bed made of cherry wood, even the tiny nightstand with its golden vase of gently dried flowers—a bit of cheer in the midst of a white winter.

Like Darren’s, the cold marble floor of my chamber was covered in luxurious fur rugs, thick and dense and seeping in warmth. I had to keep myself from cooing as I touched my toes to the ground. It felt so nice after a two-week’s journey in nothing but soggy boots and on splintery inns’ wood.

It was paradise.

Like all wonderful things, however, the charm did not last. And for me that was the moment I stepped outside the door, bidding my ladies to their own devices, and saw who stood outside it.

“Now, that is much better. Who knew you were capable of such contradictions?”

I braced myself immediately. Blayne was leaning on the wall just outside my chamber, and his stance made it clear it wasn’t coincidence. “What do you want Blayne?”

“You, of course.”

Panic slammed my ribs, and the prince’s eyes narrowed in amusement. He laughed, a harsh, empty sound, and then continued.

“I wanted to talk to you, Ryiah. We’ve never had what one might call pleasant relations. I would like to start anew.”

I was instantly suspicious. “Why?” Not only had he gone out of his way to threaten me during my time as an apprentice, he had also tried to rape my best friend. Prince Blayne of Jerar, first in line to the throne, was the last person I would trust. I already knew exactly what kind of person he was, and I had no intentions of “starting anew.”

I was about to tell him as much, but a moment of clarity hit me. It would be reckless to alienate the heir, no matter how little I thought of him, and reckless was never a good move. Especially where Blayne was concerned.

Still, I doubted the prince would trust me if I acquiesced too easily. He knew we shared a mutual dislike. “Give me a reason I should believe a word you say.”

He considered my question.

“Because one day I’m going to be your king, Ryiah, and I will be the last person you want as an enemy.”

He didn’t even bother to veil the threat. Well. I could play along. I didn’t trust the heir’s offer for a second. But I couldn’t very well refuse.

“What do you say? Friends?” The boy held out his hand expectantly. It was pale. The pallor of a palace recluse. One who preferred darkness to light.

I made myself smile; praying the heir to the kingdom didn’t notice how my eyes didn’t match my words. “Of course.”

I didn’t know his end game, but there was one thing I knew for certain: whatever Blayne planned, it wasn’t good for me.

****

The heir to the kingdom escorted me to the king’s dining hall, the very same room that had changed my life during the ascension just six months before. Without the bustle of fifteen mages and the Council filling its seats the room was decidedly quieter. It was also more intimidating.

Now only the very end of the great table was set—enough for three persons. Two of the seats were already taken.

King Lucius sat at the end drinking from a heavy goblet of gold. His stark white hair pressed close to the skull and the trim of his mustache was barely more than a whisper, yet it framed the length of his hard face perfectly.

Our history told of kings that smiled and kings that conquered. He was the latter.

Darren sat at his father’s right. He had changed into a crimson jacket and brown breeches that seemed at odds with the bejeweled velvet and heavy robes of his father. He was busy pushing a piece of cooked rabbit back and forth across his plate. He didn’t notice when we entered.

Blayne wasted no time in taking the other chair. Then I was left standing, clutching my arms to keep from trembling as I waited for someone to tell me what to do. Did proper etiquette dictate I interrupt the king with a greeting, or simply stand and wait for him to acknowledge my presence first? I couldn’t remember. I had spent so little time in court, and that short week of lessons before I had left for Ferren’s Keep had slipped from my mind.

I wished Darren would look up and realize I was here.

The king finally spotted me. He watched me as the seconds passed, not a word was spoken.

Blayne cleared his throat. “Father, I invited Lady Ryiah to join us.”

The non-heir looked up, startled. The king’s gaze narrowed into two small pins.

What do I do?

Darren’s eyes met mine, and he coughed loudly, making a quick gesture with his hand.

Memory returned and embarrassment flooded my cheeks. I dipped into a steep curtsy with a softly mumbled, “My liege.”

The king’s gaze fell from mine, and I was released from his spell.

Darren rushed forward to take my arm and called for a hovering servant to bring an extra chair. “Sorry,” he said under his breath, “I didn’t know you’d be joining us. I thought after the long ride you’d want to sleep.”

“I didn’t know I was,” I whispered. I jerked my chin in Blayne’s direction. “Your brother was the one who brought me here.”

After the servant had returned with an extra setting, I took a seat at Darren’s right, furthest from the king who had gone back to his drink. The room was uncomfortably silent. I wondered if it had anything to do with my added presence, or if this was how meals usually went for the royal family.

“So… Lady Ryiah, how have you found your stay so far?”

I forced myself to smile across the table. “Delightful. Thank you for asking, Blayne.”

“And your new chambers? Were they to your liking?”

“They were.”

Blayne continued to press one banal question after the other, and I continued to offer up stilted replies. Darren squeezed my hand under the table, resting his wrist against my lap. He was smiling at his brother, as if grateful to him for making polite conversation, but I didn’t believe the heir’s act for a moment.

Luckily the focus on me only lasted for a couple of minutes. The king finished his wine and growled at the servants for a new bottle. Then he turned to scowl at his sons, ignoring my presence.

“Blayne. My advisors tell me the ambassador is set to arrive by the end of this week. Have you seen to the preparations?”

“Yes, father. I met with the scholars just yesterday to discuss foreign policy.”

“And custom?”

Blayne yawned, unperturbed. “Custom. Fare. Dress. And whatever else those barbarians insist on as part of their meaningless culture—”

The king cut him off. “It might be meaningless, but it will be one you breathe for as long as Duke Cassius is present.”

“It will be my utmost concern.”

“Don’t use that tone with me, boy. If you had wooed the Borean princess the way you were supposed to we wouldn’t be stuck hosting King Joren’s brother in the first place. You know how I distrust those Pythians.”

Blayne’s eyes flitted to me—the real reason he hadn’t been able to win over Shina. If his brother hadn’t fallen in love with a lowborn, Darren never would have come between Blayne and Shinako in the first place.

I cringed and waited. This was why Blayne had been so kind to me earlier. I should have known. Trick the lowborn into coming to dinner, and then offer her up as the sacrificial lamb to his father’s aggression. Admittedly, I hadn’t expected the treachery so soon, but that didn’t make it any less upsetting.

The corner of the prince’s lip turned up, like the two of us were sharing a secret.

I am definitely a lamb. I looked to Darren panicked but he just shook his head. What are you doing? I wanted to scream. Stop him!

“Yes,” Blayne said slowly. “Those Pythians are a nasty bunch. Don’t you worry, father, I know my role well.” He coughed loudly. "I can always have a lady or two keep him company when he grows restless.”

“He has a wife,” the king growled. “Unless you wish to insult him and make a mockery of our court, you will do no such thing.”

“Come now, Father, everyone knows the noblemen take a lover or two during their travels. Even their wives. Why, it’s a common enough saying: the longer at sea, the more lovers she keeps.”

I let out a stilted breath of relief. Blayne had changed the subject with the barest brush of his words.

The king just made a disbelieving scoff and then turned to his youngest with a scowl. “And you, you will help your brother win their favor.”

Darren didn’t bat an eye. “Yes, Father.”

“You understand how important the alliance is.” The words were ominous.

The prince nodded.

“Good.” The king sprawled back in his chair as a servant refilled his drink. He kept his eyes on his youngest. “Because if you don’t, this entire kingdom will fall to Caltoth. And when it does? Your lowborn wife will be the first blood I spill.”

My lungs ceased to work. The goblet I’d been drinking from sloshed scarlet into my lap. I shouldn’t be here. I started to stand but Darren’s grip on my hand tightened, pulling me back down.

“Blayne will not fail in his task,” Darren said. Calmly. Rationally. “I will help him succeed, Father. Ryiah will too. She was with me when the Caltothians attacked. She has witnessed their brutality first hand.”

“Which will be nothing compared to mine.” The king set down his goblet just as a servant entered with a scroll. I watched as he skimmed its contents and then pushed back his chair, clearing his throat. “I am needed in the war chambers. It appears the rebels have struck Port Cyri again. I want the two of you to join me.”

Both princes stood. “Yes, Father.”

“And Darren, make sure this lowborn doesn’t embarrass our court when the Pythians arrive.”

****

Of all the exciting ways I had envisioned my time in the king’s palace, spending my days in the Grand Chamber wasn’t one of them. Two masters of decorum drilled highborn etiquette into my ears until I was certain I’d go mad. When it wasn’t the proper address or the correct way to curtsy it was my expectations as a princess and those were even worse. I believe the phrase “sire a son” was repeated so often my cheeks would be permanently inflamed.

Darren wasn’t even nearby. He was in the palace, but he might as well have been deployed. He and Blayne were stuck tending to Crown affairs the entire week. I didn’t even have the pleasure of dining at his side—the king had ordered the servants to bring all their meals into the war chambers.

I couldn’t bear the thought of the great long hall on my own so I spent most of my meals in the kitchens. Luckily for me the cook, Benny, was there, and he was more than willing to entertain an awkward girl.

True to his word, he had taken a bride shortly after Priscilla left the premises. When he wasn’t feeding me pasties or complaining about his demanding new wife, he was telling me tales of Darren as a child.

It wasn’t hard to notice almost all of the stories took place after the prince’s sixth year.

“What was Darren like before?”

The cook pursed his lips. “A terror.”

I started to laugh—until I caught the serious gleam in his eyes. “A terror? Surely you are talking about Blayne.”

The man shook his head. “That one used to pick fights with anything that breathed. He was the complete opposite of his brother in fact.”

I leaned closer on the counter. “Blayne was the ‘nice’ one?” What the palace must have been like if that were true.

“You see the boys as the men they are now.” Benny pulled out another tray of scones and began heaping them on racks to cool. “They were much different back then.”

“What changed?”

“Well…” The cook frowned. “One of the healers swears up and down the boys were brought into the infirmary one night—Blayne the worst of the two—and Darren still clutching a knife.”

My stomach churned, and I set down my juice, all appetite lost. “Do you think Darren…?”

“All I know for certain is the king commissioned Commander Audric to start training him for the School of Knighthood the very next day.”

“And Blayne?”

“Different than before. More outspoken, colder… I dare say like the one you know now.”

What happened? I stared at my glass in dismay. What would make Darren attack his older brother? Blayne was terrible—I had my own experience to attest to that, but if what Benny said was true then the heir hadn’t always been that way.

A wave of cold swept across my skin. “Did Blayne ever try to hurt Darren?”

The man shook his head. “If you had known him then, you would have never even thought to ask.”

“Do you…” I swallowed, thinking of what Darren had done at our ascension. And what he was rumored to have done years before to his own brother. “Do you think Blayne hates him because of it?” Their discourse was always frosty, and while I had assumed it a natural progression to their relationship, I now had to wonder if it was something darker to do with their past.

“My dear.” Benny’s eyes met mine. “Blayne doesn’t hate his brother. He loves him. Darren is the only person that boy has ever cared for, beside himself.”

“But… why? If Darren—”

“Why not?” The man shrugged. “It doesn’t have to make sense. They fight and they yell, but in the end they are brothers. Blood carries a much stronger pull than their hate.”

“But—”

“Darren feels the same way about Blayne.”

“He doesn’t.” I was certain.

Benny’s eyes narrowed. “Have you asked him?”

“N-no, but I know...” I trailed off. How did Darren feel about his own brother? I had never bothered to ask. I had assumed he put up with Blayne as the heir but...love? Did he love the same person who had tried to hurt Ella? The same person who had tormented me? Was he struck by guilt for their past?

“They are brothers,” Benny repeated softly. “That is a bond you cannot break.”

****

“And we meet again.”

I glanced up to see Paige waiting in the corridor. She had one arm propped behind her head and the other hand looped around her belt.

I grinned. “You have guard duty tonight? I was beginning to think my favorite knight was a figment of my imagination.”

She slid into step with me as we turned the corner. Was that a smile I saw cross her face? “No imagination, my lady, they’ve got—”

A cloaked arm reached out and grabbed me by the wrist, yanking me into the dark hallway beyond. I opened my mouth to scream—one hand reaching for my dagger’s hilt through my heavy skirts and calling on my magic to light the room—just as Paige leapt forward, her broadsword already drawn and calling for back up.

My attacker released me just before my casting or Paige’s blade could reach him, chuckling as the black hood fell from his face.

It was Darren.

And he was laughing. “Good to know you haven’t gone soft.”

My guard shot the prince an irritable expression. “My apologies, your highness, but that wasn’t very appropriate.”

Darren just shook his head, trying to hide the half-smile from his lips. “How else am I supposed to make sure this one has kept up with her training? You, Paige, were exceptional, but Ryiah here was a little slow.”

“Slow?” I took a step forward and shoved at his chest. “Let me assault you in a dark corridor!”

He smirked. “You are welcome to try.”

I started to retort but Darren tugged on my hand and gave Paige a pointed look. “If my father sends men to look for me tell them I’m not here.”

“I most certainly will not.”

“Paige,” I begged. This was the most I had seen Darren since I arrived, and five months prior. “Please?”

The knight scowled. “I will not lie when I say I did not see where you went.”

“Paige—”

She huffed loudly. “My eyes are shut.”

“Come on!” Darren pulled me into the great library behind. I was giggling so hard I was caught off-guard when the prince abruptly turned and shoved me up against the door, shutting it and trapping me in the same move.

“Darren,” I stammered. “There could be people…”

He put one finger to my lips. “I sent them away before you arrived.”

“How did you know I was—”

“Who do you think had the scholars send orders to meet?”

“That was you?”

“Ryiah.” The non-heir was smiling. “Do you really want to talk right now?”

No. No, I didn’t. I shook my head vehemently.

“Good.” Darren tilted my chin. “Because I’ve been waiting to do this all day.”

“Only today?” I inhaled sharply as he placed his hands on my waist and pulled me in close.

“Every day.”

His lips found mine in the dark.

And just like kindling, my whole body went up in flames.

The two of us were lost. In a moment. He was barely holding me and already I was melting.

Then, he deepened the kiss.

And my knees threatened to give out.

“Darren,” was all I could whisper.

His lips fell to the hollow at my throat.

I dug my nails into his shoulder to keep from crying out as he pushed me back against the door, garnet eyes flaring.

“Do you remember our first year at the Academy, Ryiah?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“You remember that time I kissed you in the hall?” The words were unsteady and ragged.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

“That wasn’t the first time I thought of kissing you.” The corner of Darren’s lip twitched as he fought back a smile. “It was just the first time I thought you wouldn’t light me on fire for trying.”

“It wasn’t?” I exhaled softly. “But you hated me…”

“I never hated you, Ryiah.” The prince laughed low. “I couldn’t get you out of my head. You were the only girl who ever made it a point to tell me how little you thought of me. Gods—” His eyes danced. “You looked so proud that first night you came down the ladder spitting my words back in my face. I knew that moment I had made a mistake assuming you were like the others.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I just refused to admit it.”

“And to think that whole time I just wanted to strangle you.”

He shook his head with a knowing smile. “Liar.”

I blushed, remembering all the times Darren had left me flustered and weak.

“Maybe not the whole time,” I conceded. “But you would have certainly deserved it if I did.”

He leaned forward, pressing his palms against the wood at either side of my head. “Do I deserve it now?”

I rolled my eyes, and he smirked, removing one hand to tip my chin and kiss me. Softly. Slowly. Enough to send a wave of tremors from the pit of my stomach to the tips of my toes. Enough to let me know that he knew I had no real defense. Not against him.

But it wasn’t just me.

I pulled him into me. Closer. So that it really was as if the two of us had melded against the door. As if there was nothing to separate us but the thin garments against the burning of our skin.

Everything around me was swimming.

My hands slid up his arms to wrap around his neck and then I willed myself not to faint. The way he shifted his hands to grip along my waist.

I could feel the non-heir’s rapid intake of breath and the way his fingers dug into my sides. Hard.

And it felt so, so right.

In seconds his lips were back on mine. And I was gasping for air. And his tongue was in my mouth and his hands were fumbling with the top laces of my dress and I was ripping the shirt up and over his head.

And then…

And then the door I was pushed up against swung open, and I was sent stumbling into the corridor, tripping over my dress as I crashed into someone behind. Darren managed to catch himself against the knob, but I was not so lucky, falling against the stranger with a muffled yelp.

“And just when I thought the palace had grown short on entertainment.”

I jumped at the familiar drawl and threw myself out of the stranger’s arms faster than I had ever done anything in my life.

My face burned as I steadied myself, pulling up to straighten my dress as the crown prince stepped neatly out of the darkness behind Darren and me.

“Blayne.” Darren’s voice was a growl as he stepped forward, pulling me behind him.

“Really, brother.” The crown prince folded his arms. “The library?”

The non-heir refused to rise to the bait. “What do you want?”

“Father sent the servants to find you, but I knew you’d give them the slip.” The crown prince’s gaze flitted to me and then back to his brother. “Lucky for you, I just asked them where she went and, well, here I am.”

“Tell him I will be there shortly—”

“Now.” Blayne cut him off with a sharp reprimand. “Do you think I like listening to those old men argue for hours on end? The Council isn’t even present—they are still dealing with the rebels in the south. I’m not doing this alone. There will be plenty of time for romancing your bride after the Pythians arrive.”

I nudged Darren, thinking about how angry the king had been just a couple nights before. I still didn’t trust Blayne one bit, and I hadn’t the slightest doubt he would tell the king who was responsible for Darren’s absence if he delayed.

The non-heir gave a loud grumble. “Just give me a minute, Blayne.”

“Smile, little brother.” The crown prince gave his brother a hard clap on the shoulder and retreated back into the hall, calling out, “Just think, if we secure my Pythian princess, this happily ever after for you and your lovely, little lowborn can come that much sooner.”

As soon as Blayne turned the corner Darren slumped against the wall and gave me a tired smile. It was the first time I realized how fatigued he really was—the shadows under his eyes hadn’t been quite so evident in a dark library when my mind had been too consumed with feelings to notice.

“I doubt I’ll get much sleep.” Darren sighed. “The Pythian ambassador is ruthless. Father’s advisors will spend the whole night debating how to proceed and nothing will get done.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

He shook his head and took my hand, interweaving his fingers with my own.

I started to smile, and I was about to tell him to go, when I remembered something that had been pressing at my mind since arrival. “Darren?”

“Yes?”

Now was the time to ask. Do it now, Ryiah, you aren’t going to have a chance later. “While I was in the north…” I swallowed. “Do you think you would be able to talk to your father about increasing the funds he sends to the border villages?”

“Ryiah.” Darren’s grip tightened on my hand. “We are preparing for war and trying to negotiate with the Pythians. The Crown’s purse is limited. What little we send is all the treasury can afford. It costs a great deal to host an army as large as ours.”

“But—” What about the people whose livelihood was burned to the ground? What could they do? I tried again. “How are the northerners supposed to fend for themselves?” I thought of my first month in service. “While I was on duty we came across a large bandit camp, Darren. They turned to crime when the Crown couldn’t help. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to help them and prevent the north from turning on its own?”

“That is why we have patrols. We can’t save everyone, love.” His eyes grew distant for a moment, and I knew he was thinking of what happened the year before. “No matter how much I wish we could.”

“Won’t you at least try?”

“Father will never consider a petition from me.” He squeezed my hand. “I was taught command, never policy, but...”

I waited for Darren to finish.

“He might listen if the request came from Blayne.”

My face fell.

Darren wasn’t a fool; he noticed the moment the expression crossed my face.

“I know my brother is difficult—”

You could say that again.

“But he cares about Jerar. If you take away anything from tonight that would be it.”

I bit my lip. I had no choice. I had to try. For Ian. For all the northerners who had lost their home to the Caltothian raids. I just wished our plan didn’t depend on Blayne. Every instinct was telling me it was wrong.

I didn’t trust the crown prince for a moment. But Darren did. And try as I might I couldn’t find a reason to refuse.

I just hoped I wasn’t making a mistake.

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Next: Chapter Seven