“Could you write any larger if you tried?”
Galephy’s voice scarcely gave warning before the paper slid beneath the tip of Kael’s pin, leaving an inky gash running off the page. Anger and fear dueled as Kael reached to snatch the paper back before common sense halted the protest. Galephy’s eyes ran over the words anyway, so Kael signed and explained, “It’s only an idea. I was working out the logistics of sending provisions to the north border before the winter sets in too firmly.
Galephy shook his head. “The people of the north border need to take care of their own failures. If you take food from the mouths in the other provinces, you’re only infuriating them and causing two areas to struggle through the winter instead of one.”
That’s why he was working out the logistics. Kael turned in his chair, trying to indicate further down the page, “I realize that, but…”
Galephy lowered the page, turning down his nose. “But what? But you know better than me?”
Kael dropped his eyes, conceding the challenge his father laid out. But he swallowed venturing softly. “The floods destroyed their crops, and they won’t last until spring until they are given aid. But if the people from the other provinces gave willingly then–”
Galephy huffed a sigh, setting down the paper. “You’re right. It’s a wonder that the world survived all these years without you.” He leaned forward until his eyes were blurred an inch from Kael’s. “However, while you’re wasting paper on half-formed ideas, you should be aware that an entire fleet of T’erish ships has been spied in our waters, very likely on their way to Kathonia and whether they arrive to make love or war, Erilerre has much larger problems than one starving village.”
Kael stared lightly. “They’ve taken to ships?”
“Desperation overcomes superstition,” Galephy answered. “And since your uncle has failed to procure any sort of alliance with them, one of us needs to be in Kathonia when they land, either to aid King Farious’s excuse for an army or to ensure that we are not left out of any alliances.”
“But we already have an alliance with Kathonia,” Kael said.
His father sighed, setting a hand on his shoulder, “And that, my son, is why I’m going and not you. Not a word about this to anyone. They know that I go, not why. I trust you can manage to keep our country in one piece until I return. If you insist on carrying any of your ingenious ideas, do it now when it can be assigned to you. Don’t go behind my back.”
His father was leaving? Kael leaned back to get a clearer view, but his father’s expressions were unreadable as it was. “How long?” he asked.
“I cannot say since I don’t know what those ships are doing.” Galephy returned the paper with a cocked eyebrow. “Don’t grow too comfortable making commands. You’ll be the first to welcome me home.”
He wasn’t sure if that was a command or a threat, but Kael left the half-formed document on the table. The frenzy that the sudden departure created among the servants and guards didn’t quite cover the subtle excitement that grew as Galephy gave orders, chose men to accompany him, and mounted a horse in the display of a warrior. By mid-afternoon, his family dutifully gathered in the courtyard to see him off, and every eye stayed dry as the gates closed behind him.
“Maybe he won’t come back,” Darshon whispered.
Margaret shook her head. “He survived a T’erish prison. He’s not going to be killed by a journey to Kathonia.”
“Do you know why he’s going?” Darshon asked, twisting his head toward Kael.
Kael nodded but answered, “Yes. But I’m more concerned about what I’m going to do while he’s gone.”
And before his father had time to leave the borders of their village, he sent Darshon upstairs to find and finish the document he’d started that morning, trusting the Darshon’s mind to come up with a solution.
He hated the prison. Absolutely hated it and his back tingled with fear of what Galephy would do upon finding the changes. Perhaps his father wouldn’t bother to look, for he generally forgot about prisoners once he’d locked them away unless they’d peeved him enough to continue the torture. Armed with the prison keeper’s records and the man himself, Kael reviewed each case. By nightfall, a lord had been released, along with several men whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The soldiers who escorted them home returned with several stories of children’s’ hugs and wives’ tears. It was the first time in a long time that people had lifted a glass to them as they rode past.
By morning, Kael had worked up the courage to send for reports from every leader in each province. He may pay dearly for his commands, and likely the outer lands wouldn’t even realize the change of rulers, but his father had left him the authority to make changes, and he couldn’t ignore it.
Days passed, yet his father sent no correspondence at all. Likely he wouldn’t, preferring to return suddenly, curious at what was happening in his absence. Or perhaps he feared to send written communications along the roads. Each day Kael woke a little more tired, but he pressed onward, afraid every moment would be the last chance he had to complete the tasks he’d started. Every time he attached his name to a decree, his heart beat a bit harder, and the worry settled a little heavier.
When his door flung open without even a knock, he jumped to his feet stumbling back three steps before he spied Tehveor. His cousin panted as he held out a paper.
“Father?” Kael asked, but Tehveor spoke over him.
“There are dead children in the square,” Tehveor said.
“Dead… what?” Kael stared, but Tehveor repeated what he’d heard the first time.
“They’re from the street,” he said. “I rode close enough to see the edict and your name is at the bottom. I took it with me.”
Kael snatched the paper, shaking his head at the signature. “This isn’t my handwriting.”
“I know that, but they don’t,” Tehveor said.
Someone had hung children and assigned his name to the deed? Kael swallowed, wondering if one of them was the boy he’d saved from those gallows. He clenched his teeth, then spat, “Get me a horse.”
His anger quieted the general who mentioned the dangers of riding out, but it only lasted until he’d turned the corner and saw the gallows. Children. Six corpses hung suspended and still. Kael slid from his saddle onto the platform, but it was too late to save any of them. He touched a shoe from a child so small that the leg was the only thing that he could see without lifting his head. Once he did look up, he wished he hadn’t.
“Cut them down,” he said.
But the man who had committed the crime was gone. Whoever had watched until the struggles ended and no one could intercede, had melted into the crowds. He felt eyes on him, villagers paused on the porches.
“Who did this?” he called.
The question only dropped heads all around. Even Tehveor flinched before he whispered, “You sound like your father when you yell.”
Perhaps that was the purpose of the fraud. To remind everyone whose blood his carried. Kael mounted the horse again, again calling out, “Whose children are these?”
Again people exchanged looks but refused words. His eyes landed on a sign down the road. A horse, the words Tevere Briotte. Someone there would tell him the truth. He glanced at his men around him. “Go to each house. Find out what you can and see if you can find any relatives. If no one claims them, bury them together and mark the place.”
Under the orders, no one questioned his entrance into the Tevere Briotte, but before he’d found Karlyn, he spied another face he recognized, and questions weren’t necessary.
Demarra kept his hand on his mug, letting one side of his mouth creep up. He stood, along with everyone else in the room, bobbing his head in a slow homage. “My Prince.”
It was tempting to order him arrested, perhaps even dragged to the nearest whipping post, but Kael swallowed the command. Revenge only strengthened the plot. He didn’t bother stepping closer as he swept his arm toward the doorway. “Are you responsible for that?”
Damarra’s face twitched, the first crack in the confident smile. “I was acting under orders, sir.”
“Whose orders?” Kael snapped. “Not mine!”
“Of course they were yours,” Demarra answered. His smile slipped for a moment before it returned, perhaps realizing any other admittance was a direct betrayal to whoever was behind the display. He bowed deeply. “I received your orders this morning. Strange, perhaps, but it’s not my place to question, only obey.”
“You’re right,” Kael answered. He lifted his chin. “Take out your sword.”
If Tehveor worried he sounded like his father in the square, he was doing himself no favors here. But when the man pulled out the dagger, he said, “You may drop that and tell me who ordered those children hung, or you may drive it into yourself and die with your secret.”
Demarra’s lips parted, erasing the smile. He eyed the soldiers behind Kael, then the other tables. Even the woman who ran the inn had paused in the kitchen doorway, heedless of the wrapped bread she crushed against her body.
Kael kept his eyes on the man. Galephy must have arranged it, must have promised protection, must have either planned that Demarra would never be pinned down or decided that he was expendable enough to risk. Betrayal would likely end his life anyhow, but Demarra wasn’t the type to take his own life – not when doing so would prove the point he sought to hide.
He swallowed. “The order came from your father,” he said. “Of course I had to obey, didn’t I?”
“No,” Kael said. “You didn’t.”
Though perhaps Galephy had threatened him. Kael caught the thought as it stirred sympathy. Wasn’t that the man’s aim? “The king’s orders broke his own laws, and therefore were not valid. You could have come to me.” His skin twitched with rage as he spat, “But you didn’t! You killed, not once but four times, but they will be your last times.”
Demarra fell to his knees but, before he even had a chance to beg, Kael turned to the head guard, ordering, “Damarra’s family will cover the expenses of the children’s burials and monuments. Hang him and put him in the criminal’s field.”
He’d never ordered anyone killed. He didn’t stay to watch, already feeling nauseated by the man’s pleas as he mounted his horse. Demarra was a traitor. Sparing him wouldn’t gain his loyalty, wouldn’t keep him from carrying out Galephy’s other orders, wouldn’t keep innocent people safe. He swallowed the bile three times as they rode away from the square, toward the privacy of the castle walls.
But his arms shook so heavily that Tehveor reached once to steady him. It was revenge for going against the king’s orders and saving Karlyn. It was a warning to stay in his place in the shadows. It had likely been planned before the king left. Galephy couldn’t have guessed how many changes he’d manage to make in the first week of his absence. The children’s faces and Demarra’s begging mixed together and, once he pictured his father’s face upon realizing every change Kael had made, he couldn’t pretend anymore. He managed to slide from the horse, but he landed on his hands and knees, vomiting into the grass just inside the gate.
People were watching, they had to be watching. He couldn’t see their faces and he didn’t want to, covering his own with his fingers and whispering the same words his father would have been if he were actually here, “You’re pathetic.”
Tehveor’s feet landed next to him. His cousin knelt whispering, “He set that up before he left. He wouldn’t have tried to sabotage your rule if he didn’t think you would be succeeding.”
Kael rubbed his face. It wasn’t a sabotage. It was a punishment, a warning. He wiped his face and stood. “That doesn’t bring them back.”
He raised his hands to dismiss his escorts, then walked toward the castle.
Darshon rushed onto the steps, demanding, “Where have you been? I’ve been searching everywhere for you!”
Kael shook his head, as Tehveor said, “Don’t ask.”
Not now, or he’d be vomiting on the castle steps as well. He swallowed, then moved his attention to Darshon, who was recoiling in hesitation.
“What’s wrong?” Kael asked.
“Um…” Darshon’s eyes moved from his face to Tehveor’s, now unsure. When Kael waved him on, he said, “The supplies didn’t make it. The supply wagons were intercepted and robbed.”
Kael huffed something near a laugh, then wiped his eyes. “Of course they were.”
“But they shouldn’t have been,” Darshon said. “The collection only took from the provinces that gave willingly. I made sure…”
Kael shook his head, holding his hand up to silence his brother. “It’s not your plan,” he said. “They never were going to make it.”
“On the up hand,” Darshon said. “Aunt Setta got a letter. Tehveor’s father is still alive.”
Relief he hadn’t realized he’d feel swept through Tehveor’s face as he lifted it, asking, “Did he say anything about the alliance?”
“I don’t know what he said,” Darshon answered. “Your mother just said he was fine. Or was several weeks ago when he wrote the letter.”
“He’s not even close to an alliance,” Kael said, wondering if he should tell the two about the ships and the possibility of Kathonia going to war.
“Yes, he is,” Tehveor replied quickly. “He’s very close.”
“Father said…” Kael started.
“And you believe him?” Darshon asked.
“He doesn’t know,” Tehveor answered. “Father felt it best if he said nothing until he had secured it and brought it himself.”
Perhaps the ships weren’t malicious then. Peace with both Kathonia and Katal Iiell seemed a dream which could never be fulfilled, but Kael felt hope rising anyway. Surely his father hadn’t arranged the entire trip just to cause him to fall on his face, but why, after so many years of scolding him for his failures as a prince, was the man deliberately sabotaging his efforts? And what else was he going to do?
Kael glanced toward the gates. Galephy was right. He would be the first to welcome him back if this kept up, if nothing more so he didn’t have to worry about what else the man had planned.