The nights were growing too cold to stay out for hours. If he didn’t ride by soon, Eslaveth would have to return to the inn and put off speaking to Tehveor yet another day. She’d watched for him in the mornings, though it would be hard to catch him then when he’d be in a hurry, and she faced a full workday. She didn’t know when he rode by on his way to his destination, and though she’d chosen different times to wait each night, he hadn’t come.
Perhaps he wouldn’t.
She swallowed and pulled her cloak tighter around her body, scooting her knees further into her chest. She’d sent word to her uncle, but she had no idea how many days it would take before the letter reached him, if he could read the words of the chapel-keeper, or if he would respond to her request to see him again. And now it was too late to recall it. She couldn’t have both lives, surely, so she’d said nothing about becoming a lady. But if taking up that title gained her the ears of people who could put a stop to the sort of behavior that led to Breon’s death, wasn’t it right to try, even if it did require her to leave the home of the couple who had raised her?
And then there was this Sentarra kingdom, these secrets the man claimed she should not pursue. In the end, it all boiled down to meeting Tehveor again, for if he couldn’t take Daryn’s behavior to someone who would look into it, she doubted anyone could. And if he was part of this country–if he was the cause her parents died for–he could answer her questions about that, too.
Muffled hoofbeats sent her heart into a painful pound. She leaned into the shadows until she spied the rider. He wore a cloak but a horse and saddle that fine must be from the castle, and there was something about his stance that made her feel safe enough to push to a shaky stand.
“Tehveor!” she called.
The rider pulled the animal into a circle, turning to search the shadows with his hand on his sword’s hilt. He dropped it only after she pushed her hood back.
“Eslaveth,” he whispered. He nudged the animal closer, his eyes picking up the glint of the moonlight as he asked, “What are you doing out here?”
“Waiting for you,” she answered. “I wasn’t sure when you rode by, and I couldn’t get word to you at the castle.”
“Word about what?” he asked.
She swallowed, glancing down the empty street where most of the fires had burned out. If the moon wasn’t so full, she wouldn’t have been able to see him at all. She unclasped the chain from her neck and held it up to let it dangle between them.
“This is yours, isn’t it?” she asked.
He hesitated for so long that she began to doubt her own guess. Perhaps he wasn’t part of the kingdom. He eyed the ring like it was a hot coal before he reached for it. The chain slacked as he bore the ring’s weight.
“Yes,” he whispered.
She held her breath and the fog from her last rose, clearing the air between them. The kingdom was real. The memories, her father’s claims, they were all real. Had her father not been intercepted, she would have met Tehveor when they were young.
“Then you chose it,” she whispered. “The kingdom?”
He held so still she wondered if he was holding his breath, but then he nodded.
“And the secrets are worth the knowing?” she asked.
“They will be,” he said.
“Then I want to know them, too,” she said.
The silver eyes searched her, the horse shifted, and Tehveor put a hand on its neck without taking his eyes from her. He swallowed, then whispered, “It’s a long walk.”
He held out his arm. He wasn’t going to tell the secrets. He was going to take her there. She swallowed and grasped his hand, gasping as he pulled her onto the horse behind him. She’d ridden before, but it had been so long that she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one would see and pull her back onto the ground where the peasants belonged.
“Hold on to me,” Tehveor whispered.
She seized his waist as the horse began to move.
“How did you remember?” Tehveor asked.
“The song,” she answered. “Flash of Fire. Sound of Steel. My father taught me.”
“What else did your father tell you?” Tehveor asked.
“That our family was to protect a king,” she answered. “And our country needs a good king.”
He turned his face to glance over his shoulder before he answered, “I’m not a king of Erilerre. Only the Erish who came from Sentarra will return to it. Most will stay. Kael is their king.”
“How will they know?” she asked. “If the kingdom is secret?”
“They’ll be drawn,” he said. “As you were.”
She swallowed, wondering if Breon would have been drawn to the secret kingdom. “I need your help,” she said, “as a korvier, not a king.”
“That doesn’t happen often,” Tehveor said. “Korvier’s don’t have much authority.”
“All I need is an ear,” she said. “Do you know Darryn, the son of Lord Yarborrow?”
Tehveor frowned but nodded. “Yes. Though not well. I don’t trust him.”
She swallowed. “He murdered my friend. A few of us, actually.”
She’d discussed the dance with her neighbors, especially during the burials of those who hadn’t survived the intrusion. Even Breon’s death had brought masked questions and speculations. She wasn’t even sure that telling the king’s family could change anything, but at least she’d tried and someone knew. A korvier may not hold much power, but Tehveor was one step above a lord and Darryn couldn’t trample him.
“I know at the end of the day nothing in the world will bring Breon back,” Eslaveth swallowed before she asked, “But can’t you do something?”
Tehveor took a breath. “I could let Darryn know that I know, and that may deter him from future torments. But we must find a way to keep him from suspecting that you told me and returning to harm you.”
“If it comes to harm me,” she said. “He’ll be stirring up a hornet’s nest. Half the town slits their eyes toward his home, and if he pushes them much further, they will swarm. That’s why we must do something now.”
There was nothing amusing in the conversation, but she watched a smile creep across Tehveor’s mouth until it was too distracting to continue her rant and she asked, “What? Why are you smiling?”
“Do you know,” he said, “that the legend predicted that you would come in the form of a protector?”
“A protector?” she asked. “Well, I knew I was supposed to protect you…”
“The second princess does far more than protect me,” he said. “She protects her people by leading them when Celestion is gone, and if I’d doubted that you were her, I don’t anymore.”
“Father never said anything about a princess,” Eslaveth said.
“Celestion – the one with the silver eyes – becomes the high king,” Tehveor said. “But there is another prince and three princesses in the legend, each with a different task, but each who will jointly rule over aspects of the kingdom. We already have the first, who is the messenger, now we have you. The protector. And I think that’s what Fate has been waiting for.”
For her?
Eslaveth swallowed and hugged him a bit more tightly. “I wrote my uncle about the adoption,” she said. “I don’t want to leave the inn, but I thought if I became a lady, I could reach you and help them.”
“Likely your family isn’t part of Sentarra,” Tehveor said. “Perhaps later they will be. But you won’t have to leave the inn – not yet anyway, though it does become harder to keep your separate, to keep the secrets.”
“Your family doesn’t know,” she said.
“Only my mother,” Tehveor answered. “The secrets are dangerous to those not part of Sentarra, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Fate has drawn anyone else.”
“Which is why you didn’t tell me,” she said, “when I showed you the ring?”
He nodded. “If you come to Sentarra, it must be of your own choice. But Fate led you here anyway.”
“Led me where?” she asked, because he had pulled his horse to a stop in the middle of the wilderness as soon as the moors blocked the wind.
Tehveor slid from the horse, reaching for her waist to steady her as she followed him down. She landed inches from him, realizing he stood nearly a head above her.
“To the caves,” he said. He turned her to face the jagged mouth of an entrance. “This is where the leaders, and the legends, and Fate all live.”
She didn’t like the dark mouth, gaping in the quiet wilderness. But she asked, “Was my father here?”
“I think so,” he answered.
Had she been here as well? It felt familiar — repelling even as curiosity drew her — but she stiffed as a figure stepped from the blankness with a sword drawn.
But Tehveor called, “It’s only me.”
The man sheathed the weapon and bowed deeply before asking, “Who is with you?”
Tehveor’s hand slipped into hers, squeezing it in a reversal of roles as he called out, “The protector. Her name is Eslaveth, but she speaks only Erish.”
The man stepped into the moonlight, staring at her as though she were a mythical creature. “Mauran’s daughter?” he asked. When Tehveor nodded, an impressed smile crept across the guard’s face before he replied, “Well done.”
“I didn’t do it,” Tehveor said. “She came on her own.”
The man bowed again, only this time to her. When he straightened, his face was kind. “I am Daton,” he said. “I knew your father. He was a good man. He would be proud of you for returning and taking up his cause. When you need my support, you will have it.”
“Thank you,” Eslaveth said with a startled glance toward Tehveor, who only grinned.
“Come meet the first princess,” Tehveor said. “Shannondant’s going to be elated for another girl here, don’t you think?”
Daton grinned and nodded. “She may never let you leave.”
“Eslaveth must leave,” Tehveor said. “She is like me. She cannot stay yet.”
“Soon,” Daton said. “Soon, and neither of you will have to choose.”
Tehveor kept her hand as they stepped into the darkness. She forced her feet across the unseen paths until torchlight cast light across the earthen walls. She’d imagined caves as mazes of black rock, but the walls sparkled with layers of earth and crystal that reflected the flames.
She glanced around as they stepped into a cavern. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
“I’ve often wondered what it would truly look like,” Tehveor said. “If you were able to see the entire thing at once in the sunlight. It’s a lot like Sentarra,” he said. “It’s just pieces, some beautiful and some dark, and you’re never quite sure how they fit together or what they will look like when everything is in place.”
“What do you think it will look like?” she asked.
“Freedom,” he answered. “From the secrets. From the king. We’ll finally have somewhere safe, and who’s to say when it’s not a secret anymore, that we can’t bring those we love to the new kingdom if they are not happy in the old.”
She’d heard lots of talk of a new kingdom of late, but it had all revolved around overthrowing and destroying the old. Was it possible to raise another alongside who would provide safety and strength to Erilerre until Kael was able to stabilize the throne? Was that why her father had chosen to become part of both countries? To live as a subject of one as he worked to protect the leader of the other?
Hope flickered as Tehveor motioned her through another winding path. They came to a natural chamber, lit by a fire contained in a large circle whose smoke billowed toward the holes that showed gaps of stars. A boy and girl rose on their entrance, still dressed in day clothes and setting aside bowls of meat and potatoes as though they’d skipped the night altogether.
“Who is this?” the girl asked, and her eyes twinkled with intrigue.
“Eslaveth,” Tehveor answered. “Fate’s brought her.”
“Is this the second princess?” Shannondant inched toward her. “Fate said you would be coming soon.”
She’d never seen this girl in her life, and something cold swept down her spine as she sputtered, “Fate said… Fate told you about me?”
She glanced toward Tehveor to see if he shared her confusion, but he listened calmly as the girl continued.
“He said he’d seen the second princess,” she said, “and she’d already begun to fulfill her role as the protector.”
Fate had seen her? The man had warned her that if she learned the secrets, Fate would begin to watch her – but she hadn’t protected anyone since then. Who had he seen her protect?
“When?” she asked.
“Month ago,” Shannondant answered.
When she’d argued for Karlyn’s life? When she’d warned Tehveor and his brother about the plotters? When she’d gone to the castle, waited on the inn tables, and kissed Breon – Fate had been watching her? She pulled back, but Tehveor tightened his grasp on her hands.
“Fate won’t harm you,” he said. “It’s only purpose is to ensure the legend comes to pass.”
“And it is,” the other boy spoke with a growing smile. “It is coming to pass. We didn’t even have to search for her.”
“This is Decharo,” Tehveor said. “He is the keeper of the light, and if you ever get turned around in the caves, he’s the one who can find you.”
“As I well know,” Shannondant said. “I’ve been here for months and months, and I’m still getting turned around.” She turned toward Tehveor asking, “Have you showed her story yet?”
“Eslaveth doesn’t read or speak Sentarrian,” Tehveor said, conveniently leaving out that she couldn’t read Erish either.
“That’s alright,” Shannondant’s smile didn’t even falter. “She’s the protector. I don’t imagine she’d have much time for reading or sorting through old papers. But I thought – perhaps if she could tell us what she’s done and what she hasn’t, we could better order the events of the legend.”
“She will,” Tehveor said, but his grip stayed tight. “Later, though. We won’t pull her into all of that yet.”
“Oh, please, pull me,” Eslaveth answered. Intrigue overcame fear as she listened to two strangers tell her bits of a legend dictating her life. She watched the fire burn low, frowning as Shannondant regaled her with a short, but detailed story of lying to soldiers, redirecting their searches for Tehveor and even leading the Sentarrian people during one of his unexplained absences. There were gaps and no solid timeline. She wondered whether her boldness had been at all embellished in the tales through the ages, for her hands shook even imagining confronting a soldier.
The story was confusing and terrifying, but exciting. She was no longer the daughter of a lord on the quest to avenge one man. She was a princess, destined to save an entire country. Piece by piece, the mysteries of her childhood fell into place, her parents choices made sense. But her future? Her future, now partially defined, shattered every plan she’d made, jumbling events certain to come to pass with a life impossible to plan for.
What was it Breon had said? That he would going to stay away from fighting the Erish crown, unless he could discover a better alternative? She swallowed.
I found it, Breon. I found it.