“I’m going to be sad when Father returns,” Darshon said.
Tehveor nodded, simultaneously smiling a servant as they passed. In the two months of King Galephy’s absence, castle life had fallen into a comfortable routine which was already being interrupted by the arrival of the noblemen for the harvest banquet before the snow captured everyone for the winter. If Galephy stayed away another week, Kael would host the entire thing alone.
“Perhaps he won’t,” he replied. “He never cared for banquets anyway. The possibility of war will be far more attractive.”
Darshon frowned. “I hope that’s all it is. I keep wondering if he hasn’t arranged something to go wrong at the gathering, as well. If there were ever a time to knock Kael onto his knees, it’s now, while he’s gaining favor with the noblemen.”
Tehveor stopped, but his cousin turned into his bedchamber to fetch the accounts he’d been keeping for his brother.
“You think that’s why he left? To turn everyone against Kael?” he asked.
Darshon shugged. “Perhaps. He must know that he’s falling out of favor and people have begun to refer to Kael as their hope.”
“I can think of better ways to regain people’s favor than to sabotage their champion,” Tehveor said.
Darshon shrugged. “I can too. But people are fickle, and friends aren’t reliable. Fear is.”
Darshon jerked open the drawer, then became so still that Tehveor could watch the sharp breaths though he couldn’t tell if it was fear or excitement that caused the change. He tucked his head to peek into the drawer, glimpsing a stack of letters and strings stretched across the neck of an instrument before Darshon banged it shut again. The boy twisted, glancing around at the rest of the room like he suspected someone had been in it. But he smiled, which was the most confusing thing of all.
“What is it?” Tehveor asked.
Darshon peeked into the drawer again, reaching inside to touch something before he grinned. “I think Milan’s here.” He stood, cocking his head as though Tehveor knew the answer. “She must be here. No one… She’s is here, isn’t she?”
Tehveor spread his hands. “Lots of people are.”
But Darshon brushed his shoulder, already moving out the door before he’d finished his sentence. Tehveor grinned, wondering where how long it would take to find Kael to tell him about that exchange. He glanced toward the doorway once more, then dropped to his knees, inching the drawer open.
A cruit’s strings caught the sunlight and glinted over polished wood. Tehveor shut the drawer before anyone else glimpsed it. He wasn’t sure what the implications of leaving such a clue in the boy’s room – or even how it had gotten there – but it didn’t matter. Darshon understood the elaborate arrival announcement and smiled over it as much as he’d grinned over every message the girl had sent from her home.
Tehveor stood, laughing silently, reminding himself to tell Kael later. He’d been to Sentarra every night for the last two weeks, and tonight would be his first to miss seeing Eslaveth, who had grown as interested as Shannondant in arranging bits of the legend to form a cohesive story. He wondered if he could slip away, at least for an hour or two.
The trumpet sounded from the gate, giving a doleful wail that stopped every person in the halls. Somewhere, Kael’s eyes would be hitting the floor, realizing his reign was ending. But even if Galephy grew angry over his son’s changes, he wouldn’t press it during a banquet. The guests would buy a little time for his temper to lessen.
Tehveor ducked into his bedchamber, shutting the door and resting his head against it. He couldn’t lock it. Not without attracting more attention. Perhaps the king wouldn’t look for him right away or at all. Perhaps he would be pacified enjoying Kael’s humiliation.
He paused with his hand on the panel that would lead him to freedom. He should go to Kael, but if he was going to Sentarra, he must go now. Did he dare risk the king calling for him and not finding him again? Surely he would punish the stablekeeper for letting Tehveor take a horse even if the man hadn’t given permission.
Pressure settled onto his chest, feeling the responsibility to find and fulfill the legend war with the guilt of keeping the Erish people safe. He crept to the window, wincing as he spied Galephy swing from his horse. But it was another rider who caught his attention as boy dismounted, lifting his eyes straight toward Tehveor’s window. Joshah was home. Tehveor scanned the other faces, but none of them looked like his father. Sentarra must wait.
He avoided the main entrance, taking the servant’s door to free himself from the growing crowds. Kael’s shoulders were set, braced, and he held no smile for his father. But Galephy clasped his shoulder anyway, looking every inch a proud father and Kael’s face flickered from dread into confusion. Tehveor stood until the king and prince had stepped back into the castle and the crowd began to move again.
Joshah smiled, striding to meet him with genuine eagerness. The tenuous arms rippled as he pulled Tehveor into a rough embrace, then whispered, “Father’s coming.”
Father.
Hope and fear leaped. He pulled back, searching the brown eyes that replicated Setta’s. “For good?”
Joshah nodded once. “Don’t tell Mother yet — or anyone. She can’t keep a secret like that. But he’s coming, and he’s got the treaty in hand.”
Terrant was returning to live with them. His father would share their table, their lives, even their struggles. Would it stop the king’s summons or only worsen them?
“When?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. Perhaps as early as tonight,” Joshah said. “But only with the best of traveling conditions, so it could be several days before he manages to arrive.”
“Well, he can’t arrive soon enough,” Tehveor said. “The king is going to be furious when he discovers everything Kael has done in his absence.”
Joshah grinned because Joshah was little affected by the king’s rage.
“Good for Kael,” he said.
Was it good? He wasn’t sure. Kael plans had fallen apart, his orders counteracted each other as he waffled between decisions. Even now, the prince’s face was scrunched with guilt and worry in such tight lines that even his attempts to smile and respond didn’t cover them. Tehveor fought his own, feeling his cousin’s worry transferring to him.
Galephy started well enough, responding to the welcome backs and only occasionally teasing about Kael’s rule in his absence with a sort of fatherly affection. But the king’s smile gradually fell as his goblet rose, and Margaret squirmed as he motioned for the fifth refill.
When Tehveor should have left for Sentarra, he busied himself asking Silvah to dance, drawing the same comfort from her touch that he had her letters. When they should have all gone to bed, he sat with the group, teasing Ceslaya for yawning through Joshah’s stories. When the bell rang the midnight hour, Thymon approached, bobbing his head in a silent call. Tehveor glanced around for the king, but there wasn’t time to find him in the crowd.
“I’ll be back,” he whispered to Silvah, who only smiled at him and turned her attention to Milan, who sat next to Darshon a little closer than protocol predicted.
Thymon’s frown grew as Tehveor approached. He ducked his head, sending tuffs of hair askew as he whispered, “His Majesty has sent for you.”
But he hadn’t done anything. Tehveor caught the protest, caught the tears, caught the fear only an instant before they reached his face.
He glanced across the great hall where Kael sat on the throne, looking as though he expected a summons at any moment. It wouldn’t come. It wouldn’t come because Galephy had sent it to Tehveor instead.
Instead.
He glanced back toward the others; to Darshon, who smiled, despite the tuck in his forehead that indicated his chest was beginning to ache beneath the strain. To Silvah, who laughed with the innocence that he wished he still possessed. To Ceslaya, who cocked her head at him, gaining Joshah’s attention.
He swallowed and looked away. “Thank you.”
Thymon shifted, then whispered, “It’s worse tonight than normal. If you left, he might not even remember the summons in the morning.”
He could go to Sentarra but what would happen here? Galephy would search for him. Perhaps he would find someone else, but someone would fall prey tonight. Perhaps even Kael or Thymon.
Thymon wouldn’t survive a beating. Tehveor would.
He moved away from the servant, already shutting off the thoughts of protest. Obey. Endure. Go on. It wouldn’t last. He wouldn’t die. And someday Galephy would see a crown on his head and a sword in his hand and the man would reach for a shield instead of a whip. He hesitated only a second before he grasped the door to the king’s study and let himself in.
Galephy crossed his legs, leaning with folded arms against the edge of his desk, surprisingly balanced for the amount of alcohol he had consumed. His eyes were red, glazed, as they moved over Tehveor but the malicious delight he’d expected was absent.
“What are you hiding?” Galephy slurred. “Where do you go?”
Was the king still trying to have him followed? Tehveor swallowed, hoping to derail the man’s senses. “You sent for me. I came here. I was in the gathering with the others.”
The smile crept over Galephy’s face as he cackled. “You know Margaret tried to outsmart me. She thought she had friends, thought she could even kill me. I killed her friends. I whipped any who offered her aid. I pulled out her secrets one by one and broke her. I’ll break you too. I’ll find your secrets.”
“I have no secrets, My King,” Tehveor lied.
The king laughed. “We already share secrets, though, don’t we? We don’t have to. I could tie you to a post in the courtyard. I could march you inside that great hall and punish you there for your stubborn silence.”
Tehveor flinched, and Galephy laughed again. “See there? I know how to make people stay quiet or speak. I promised Kael that if he overrode my orders again, I would strip his back and beat him, and I will. Unless you’re feeling generous? Loyal, perhaps?”
He was too scared to feel much of anything. A public beating of the prince would damage the entire family’s reputation. No one was allowed to touch Kael without his permission except his father, and no one had the ability to stop it if the man took it into his head – except him.
He swallowed again, reaching to free the hem of his shirt, to strip his own back. Would the king drag him down to the great hall to whip in front of the crowd? In front of Kael and Silvah?
Sentarra. Think of Sentarra.
His back may protect Kael, but his silence protected his kingdom. Galephy wouldn’t press for answers tonight, not after a beating. But he wasn’t lying about the whip. He’d never been whipped, but Decharo’s back had taken weeks to heal. This would be hard to hide.
He swallowed as he dropped his shirt and the king pulled his elbow to the desk. He planted one of Tehveor’s hands against the desk.
“A prince isn’t allowed to kneel,” Galephy said.
A prince.
Was he still reenacting Kael’s punishment? Or did he know? Did he know? Panic flickered, but he kept it from his face until the king stepped behind him. The lash trailed his back feeling like he’d been stung by hornets. He gasped and gripped the desk tighter.
A second lash, and he scarcely reined in his cry. He couldn’t think of Sentarra or even Kael. He couldn’t think about anything besides catching his breath, only to losing it on the next blow, besides keeping his feet in place when every instinct pulled him toward the door.
What was the punishment for a prince? If he knew when it would end – that it would end – he could bear it. But the whip fell across his shoulder, already sore from learning to weld the Lastern sword and blood crept into the laceration it left.
“Don’t touch him!”
Joshah’s command garbled his thoughts. Tehveor spun in time to see his brother caught the king’s wrists, intervening the next blow, twisting his arm over his head.
“Joshah!” Tehveor cried as his brother hurled the whip across the room.
“If it’s my good pleasure to beat him, I’ll beat him,” Galephy spat. “You are out of your place to refute me!”
The wide fist swung. Joshah ducked, shoving Tehveor onto the ground before he blocked the blow with his arm.
“Joshah, stop! Stop, stop!” Tehveor begged.
Galephy twisted Joshah’s arm, forcing him to hunch forward and hissing into his ear. “You will regret your interference by the time I’m done with you.”
“Please, My King,” Tehveor begged.
“Tehveor you come with me!” Galephy spat. “Not a word from either of you!”
He followed as the king shoved Joshah through deserted halls, steering him down the steps to the dungeon. Joshah panted but held his chin high as he walked past the cells Kael had emptied, only stumbling when the king continued to twist his arms. Tehveor’s stomach rolled as the king shoved his brother into the same cell where Mauran had died.
Joshah made no protest as the king forced his hands into chains high above his head. Tehveor caught the bars, hyperventilating, as Galephy strode past him to jerk a braided coil from the wall.
Joshah caught his eye, whispering, “Be calm.”
But just after, the boy’s eyes widened. He pulled against the chains, crying, “Please, Your Majesty, no!”
The fire trailed across Tehveor’s back again, twice as hard as the others and it ripped his voice out of his throat. Galephy shoved him against the bars, scarcely allowing himself to catch himself before he commanded. “Quiet! The more you beg, the harder he will be flogged. You will learn not to interfere.”
Tehveor clenched the bars as another blow fell, knocking him against the bars. He banged his head, then pulled away, but the lash stopped his backward step.
And now he heard Joshah’s cry, turning into a strangled wail as the boy closed his mouth to stop his own pleas. The next lash came harder still, and his cries blended in with his brother’s. He clung to the bars, holding himself until his legs shook too badly and he sunk between each blow.
The room swayed in and out of focus, followed by a black blur that dipped him toward the floor. He’d tried to beg, but his raw throat rasped. But he couldn’t go on. The king was going to kill him.
“Mercy!” He panted. “Mercy, My King. Please…. Please…”
The blows stopped, bringing hope and relief and dread that they’d start again. He gasped in short breaths, losing them again in the panting refrain of, “Please, please…”
He couldn’t look up, couldn’t lift his head, but he felt the king step away, felt the relief the open space offered.
Galephy’s voice rose above Joshah’s heavy breaths.
“You have an impressive mouth on you,” he said. “And it better offer an impressive apology tomorrow morning. If you ever speak against me again, I will burn out your tongue, and if you raise a fist against me, I will cut it off. Do you understand?”
“Yes, My King,” Joshah whispered.
As the door slammed, Tehveor dropped his forehead into the crook of his arm, feeling his breath bring up bits of straw and dust from the floor.
“Tehveor,” Joshah whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He worked a hand closer to his chest, but he couldn’t loosen his brother’s chains any more than Joshah could pull him up. And he didn’t want to move.
He closed his eyes as Joshah said, “By the gods, you can’t stay here.”
“I’m not…” Tehveor groaned. “Going to stay here.”
He was going to Sentarra.