“Just one more place, Esla, please!” Karlyn begged. “I haven’t found any of them!”
Eslaveth clung to the boy’s hand, blinking back tears she’d hope he’d ignore. The six children on the square had been replaced by the body of the man who had ordered them hung, the same who had come into the inn looking for Karlyn. She hadn’t known who he was, hadn’t dreamed of the horrors he’d commit, but she’d seen the gleam in his eye. She’d lied about a boy working there, then snatched the Karlyn’s hand and ran with him out the back door. They’d had a wonderful day together down at the river and for the most part, she’d managed to hide the worry from him. But the story was on every tongue, and Karlyn hadn’t waited to hear of Prince Kael’s arrival at the inn. He’d shrieked and ran out the door, calling the names of every friend who’d ever roamed the streets with him.
She’d taken turns sitting up with her family throughout the night, terrified someone would come to punish them for hiding him. She’d watched the sky lighten, but Tehveor had not ridden by that morning. The king was gone. Kael had been making lots of orders lately. but no one was quite sure what was going on.
“Karlyn, please!” She snapped as the boy wrested his hand from hers, darting into another ally. Someone was going to snatch him before she could if he kept bolting. She sprinted after him, calling, “I’ll go where you’re going, just tell me!”
But the alley was empty. Karlyn stood with slouched shoulders, pushing his lips out to stall the quivering in his face. She reached to pull his face into her chest, listening to him pull in a long sob. “They’re probably still hiding,” she whispered.
Perhaps she shouldn’t. Six children had been buried in nameless graves yesterday. He must know some, if not all of them.
“Not from me!” he squealed before the tears broke loose.
She coached her own breaths, lifting her head at the bit of movement at the corner of the building. She barely glimpsed the eye before it disappeared again.
“Karlyn!” She whispered, turning the boy.
The eye appeared again, then half a face.
“Lincon!” Karlyn’s shout would have attracted any guard within a mile, but Eslaveth breathed a sigh of relief as the boy ripped away from her again, sprinting to meet the other in a collision that looked painful.
One. One was safe. She’d doubted they’d ever clung to each other before, but she wondered if she would be able to separate them or if she’d be taking two boys back to the inn. She hadn’t considered the change in Karlyn until he was standing across from his ragged friend. She strained to hear but stayed in her place so the boy wouldn’t flee.
“The butcher hid me,” the boy said. “Chase is dead. So is Marny and Kalvon. She went after Marny when they caught her. And that new boy that slept at the church. I’ve been looking for Crates all day, but I can’t find him. He wasn’t one of them, though. I don’t know the other.”
It sounded like the talk of soldiers meeting after being on the borders, but it came from the lips of such young boys. She’d expected Karlyn to cry, but perhaps it was the not knowing that was worse than the names. His face twitched a few times, but he only nodded. The boy only said three names. She wondered if he was purposely leaving out close friends or didn’t know the last children, but she stayed quiet.
“Where are you sleeping?” Karlyn asked.
“Butchers,” the boy answered. “He lets me sleep in the room next to the smokehouse. It has the best smell.”
Eslaveth shifted, glancing back into the streets. She was supposed to be gathering the farmer’s offerings for the day, not seeking out street children.
“Walk with me, will you?” she called. “We’re going to be late.”
And if anyone pestered Lincon, she’d claim him too.
Lincon glanced over her, but Karlyn pulled him closer. “She’s alright,” he said.
The pair trailed her, talking about things besides their missing friends. She’d buy them both some fruit for the way home. And she’d have to keep an eye on Lincon to make sure he didn’t snatch anything, though Master Karnon would probably let him. His both had survived pillaging for as long as she could remember and often had children lingering, hoping for apples or sweets from his pocket. That was his rule. They could have something, but they had to ask.
The sparkle was missing from his eye today, but he pushed himself against his staff as he rose to greet them. “Eslaveth,” his word came more of a sigh. “Good to see you. I worried about that one yesterday.”
He motioned toward Karlyn who, for once, was ignoring the apples, intent on Lincon’s animated chatter.
“We’ve been looking for friends all day,” Eslaveth answered, handing her basket over. He’d fill it. She was too tired to look for the best of his fruit.
“I hope you find them,” he said. He picked up one of the larger apples, then shook his head at it. “It’s been a bad time all around.” His throat pumped, before he said, “I’m sorry about Breon.”
His name struck, muddling her thoughts and hurting her heart.
Her head snapped up. “What?”
The man stalled, hand lowering into the basket as his body stiffened. “No one told you?”
She didn’t want to know. “Told me what?” The man’s mouth moved until she nearly seized his shirt. “Told me what!”
“He’s was working on Lord Yaboron’s castle on the towers. He slipped.”
“He’s not dead,” she whispered, “Tell me he’s not dead.”
But the man’s shoulders began to shake, and he told her nothing at all. She stuffed her hands against her mouth, suppressing the cry that ripped from her chest. The merchant hurried around the booth to pull her into a stifling hug.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I didn’t mean to tell you like that. I thought you knew.”
“Esla, what’s the matter?” Karlyn hurried up.
Eslaveth reached for his shoulder, panting to bring her breath back in. “We need to go home,” she choked.
“No, you stay with me, lad,” Karnon said. He nodded toward Eslaveth. “We’ll fill up the basket and see it safely home. You go on.”
She nodded, stepping backward. But go where? There was no need to rush, to save his life, even to kiss him before he died. He was gone and the last time she’d ever see him was yesterday morning when he’d smiled and waved on his way to work. She pressed her fingers against her temples, walking with steps meant to avoid scrutiny. No one spoke to her, though several sent sympathetic glances. She’d seen them that morning. She’d assumed they were for Karlyn.
Breon’s shabby little house looked even worse with the black scarf draped over the door. She’d expected to find it filled with neighbors, but the porch was empty. The door was shut, the shutters closed, and people had respected the gesture.
She knocked anyway, ignoring the cobbler who stepped to his porch, perhaps waiting to offer his own condolences to her. Her stomach tightened, but the shutter above in the little room Breon shared with Wendelis, cracked, then shut. Solid footsteps vibrated the boards, and she willed them to belong to Breon who would tell her it was all a mistake. But when the door opened, the gray face belonged to Wendelis, and she nearly didn’t recognize him when his smile was gone. He seized her shoulders, crushing her in an embrace. Breon’s mother sat near the hearth, staring at the wall.
“He’s gone,” the woman said.
“I know,” Eslaveth answered.
Wendelis swallowed, turning his face toward the corner. He spoke in clipped words. “They won’t give us his body. They said it was too mangled to be seen, and they’d they send the box straight to the church.”
A fall that far likely was nothing to see, not for a proper wake, but to not allow the body to come home at all was cruel. She lifted her eyes toward him, afraid to voice her thoughts in front of his poor mother. But the answer was already there.
Or he was pushed?
“But they’ll have to let us open it!” Breon’s mother[Look up Breon’s Mother’s name.] called. “He’ll need his things. We can’t send him off with nothing.”
“He’ll get them,” Wendelis said. “I’ll go tonight and pry it open if I have to. They won’t know.”
And shouldn’t know it, not if they were concealing a murder. Esalveth swallowed, glancing toward the box the woman held like it was a lunch she was waiting to give him before he left for work. She turned her face away to hide the tears. She hadn’t even considered what she’d leave with Breon. She wasn’t sure if he would wake or could use the things they left, but if the stories were true, even if he only saw them, there needed to be something from her.
And if Wendelis was going to open that box, he didn’t need to be alone doing it. She nodded, then whispered, “I’ll go with you.”
“We’ll have to wait until nightfall,” he said.
She nodded. “I know.”
But it was just as well. It took until night to exhaust her tears and choose what she’d leave with him. She couldn’t sleep in that bed anyway, not with those beautifully carved horses watching her. She didn’t have many possessions, could spare even fewer of them. In the end, she cut a bit of the material from the sleeve of the gown she’d worn the night of the dance and tied it around a lock of her hair. It was wrong to bury him, wrong that he should be given no future. But this was all they’d have between them. She’d known that since the day Fergon had pushed her from his house, scolding her for meddling in the secrets. She hadn’t been certain what she would do with those secrets, hadn’t known how she could best act on them. But she had realized that possessing her father’s bloodline, and her mother’s secrets threw up barriers she wasn’t willing to drag anyone into. Whether or not she wanted it, she had something interfering with her life, and she hadn’t wanted Breon to be the one forced to decide whether or not the cause was worth it for his life. She hadn’t told him yet and now was glad. He’d died loved, was still loved.
She’d never sneaked into the night to meet a boy, never dreamed if she did, it would be Wendelis. But they met on the corner, whispering “hello” and then walking in silence. The little chapel needed paint, though the elderly keeper had managed to keep the yard neat. If he saw them tonight, he wouldn’t meddle – not tonight – not with Breon tucked away alone. The keeper had left ten candles in burning in the only vigil Breon would have.
The warm light cast a hazy glow that made the iron bar Wendels carried seemed out of place. Her stomach churned, but she ignored it and motioned to the little box in Wendelis’s free hand. “What’s that?”
“What’s left from Father,” he said. “He kept it under his bed. And his favorite toy. Mother insisted, but I can’t imagine what he’d do with it. And a hammer.” He laughed a bit sheepishly. “I don’t know if he can take anything or not, but I supposed when he gets where he’s going, he’ll find something to fix.” He frowned at the shoddy coffin, jagged boards that overlapped at the corners. “I could have made him something good,” Wendelis said.
She set her hand on his arm, then replied softly, “He’ll still need a headboard.”
Wendelis crumbled, hunching over the box with shaking shoulders. She’d never seen him cry, but she reached for him and they clung to each other for several minutes.
“Don’t open it,” she whispered.
“We must,” Wendelis pulled back, face morphed into a grim resolve. “We’ll never get another chance. I have to know.”
“Don’t we already?” she asked. “Breon’s a carpenter. He’s not clumsy. He would have tied himself working that high.”
“He was clumsy around you,” Wendelis said. He stood a moment, eyeing the stones, then turned toward the coffin. His shadow grew on the wall and Eslaveth watched it jab the iron into the side board, prying the boards loose, leaving the top in place.
Eslaveth reached for one of the candles, steeling herself as she crept toward it. She saw Breon’s hair, matted with blood, but his skull wasn’t shattered. Wendelis reached for the candle as she dropped her her knees next to him, peering into the coffin.
Breon’s body lay twisted, sagging beneath broken bones. His knuckles were split – he’d been fighting. Perhaps they had dropped him from the tower, to give the story plausibility. But a fall didn’t blacken eyes.
Wendelis rocked back, surged to his feet and strode away in a smooth motion that panicked her.
“I’m going to kill him,” he hissed.
“No.” Eslaveth set the candle down, pushing herself up to catch Wendelis. “Your mother needs you and going after Daryn is not going to Breon back.”
Wendelis’s face twisted into ugly wrinkles as he spat, “So what? We just let him grow up, get married, and spawn his own children who will kill and trample and–”
“Shh, shh, shh!” Eslaveth crushed his face against her shoulder, cutting off the words, but he clung to her anyway. She lifted her own face toward the ceiling where the candlelight glinted off the dark colors of the windows that would filter the light. She’d never seen the chapel in the day, not where there was time to appreciate its elegance. Perhaps Breon was watching it, would see it’s beauty in the beams of the morning sun, but she hoped he wasn’t here, hoped he’d left behind that mangled body and made the journey on his own without waiting for any of them to see him off.
If she were a lady, she could insist the cover be removed and the story investigated. But if they let Lord Yarboron know that they knew the truth, he’d continue to cover it, even if it meant quieting both of them. There was no one else to approach. Except…
She doubted he’d ride by this morning, doubted they’d let her into the castle, doubted they’d even believe that she was a lord’s daughter. But she whispered, “Don’t do anything rash. The king is gone and the prince might listen.”
“They’re burying him tomorrow!” Wendelis spat. “It will be too late!”
And he was right. Because there was no justice for peasants.
“Let me write to my uncle,” she said. “Breon must be allowed to go on, but at least once lord will know the truth. And if he cannot take it to the king, I will go. I will speak to the korvier or the prince or whoever they allow me to see.”
“You’re an inn-keeper,” he said. “They won’t allow you to see anyone.”
“I’m a lady,” she said.
“But you’re not,” he insisted.
Eslaveth turned toward Breon’s coffin, digging the lock of hair from her pocket. His hand was too stiff to move and she could barely reach it, but she worked it beneath one of his fingers before she stroked his hair.
She rose, facing his brother and jutting her chin. “But I will be.”