“So how do they know exactly when all of this happens?” Eslaveth asked. She eyed the scraps of papers that overlapped each other on the small table, belying the gaps in the story they told.
“They don’t,” Shannondant said. “They’re going by threes, as it’s the 320th year of Erilerre’s recorded history–which is all we know, really, though Sentarra goes further back. If Tehveor wasn’t born that year, it would have to be another 300, but he was. And the legend says he’s old enough to be married, but doesn’t mention children, so likely he marries around the same time that he takes the throne. It also speaks of the night of the fourth moon ushering in the coronation – and we’re at nine moons now. Though that leaves much for Tehveor to do between now and then. There seem to be bits still missing.”
The idea of Tehveor being a mere five moons from becoming king made Eslaveth frown deeper than Shannondant. Everything pointed to Celestion being a war-king, and the idea of an approaching battle made her want to go back to the inn and hide beneath a pillow until she’d convinced herself that life would continue as normal.
“Like what?” she asked.
“Well, Fathoth, for one thing,” Shannondant replied. “And Ogetterna.”
“I don’t know what either of those are,” Eslaveth said.
“Fathoth is the white horse Celestion rides,” Shannondant said. “Tehveor lost his horse because of the Erish king, so naturally he needs another, but it can’t come from the Erish stables. It’s must be a Shlaton, and he’ll need time to train it.”
Eslaveth’s hand slipped from the edge of the table causing her to lurch toward it. “A Shlaton?” She stared before scoffing. “Well, he is tempting the fates, isn’t it? Even my father wouldn’t dare ride a Shlaton.”
Larger than riding horses and smaller than work horses, the breed were both fast and powerful. But they were wicked creatures who would charge like wild boars. “Even if the tales aren’t true, they have nasty tempers. He could easily be thrown.”
Shannondant nodded. “His heart’s pure enough to master it, even if the horses do harbor evilness. That I believe. Don’t you?”
“I think Tehveor has a good heart.” Eslaveth frowned at the paper she unrolled. “But I don’t think the purest heart will allow anyone to walk up and ride a Shlaton unscathed.”
“Fate will,” Shannondant said. “Fate protects Tehveor.”
Then why was it sending her to protect him if it was so capable? Eslaveth’s eyes fell back to the faded ink. “It doesn’t sound like its protecting him inside of the castle. Even if he’s come down with a fever he doesn’t wish to share, something else happened.”
“We don’t know for sure,” Shannondant said. She frowned as she searched the timeline for a place to lodge the next sheet paper before she admitted. “You’re right, though. The herbs Setta called for, sound more like an injury, not an illness. I think…” she swallowed before admitting. “I think Fate’s not protecting him there because he’s not supposed to be there.”
“I can’t say as I blame him,” Eslaveth said. “I don’t want to leave my family behind either.”
Shannondant nodded once. “Princess Setta did him no favors by marrying in defiance to the country.” She dropped her voice, “Though, I cannot say that I blame her either. I just hope – whomever I marry – it doesn’t create as many complications as she has. No matter what she decides, she’s going to have to choose between her children. I don’t think she’ll come to the final kingdom.”
“Not even to visit?” Eslaveth asked.
Shannondant shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe things change after the legend is gone. But the Erish and Sentarrian worlds don’t mix well.”
Eslaveth flinched. Likely Tehveor wouldn’t come tonight, and the Erish world would be waking soon enough, leaving her little time for sleeping before morning. She’d hoped for news from the castle, but the man Gregorn had sent to inquire why Tehveor had not been heard from for days, had yet to return. And someone couldn’t just run a message to the inn.
She’d have to wait.
“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t want to leave, but it time I go home before my aunt and uncle wake to find me gone. I’ll return as soon as I can to see how things are here.”
Shannondant nodded. “I hope Tehveor’s here when you come back. I’ll find out what I can.”
“Thank you,” Eslaveth said.
Walking through the dark woods unnerved her, but after a few days of Tehveor not showing to meet her, she’d grown worried enough to venture to the caves on her own. Last night, Decharo had walked her back to the borders, but the masters assigned him to work tonight. It was just as well. She wanted the time to think, and the moon lit the woods well enough to find her way without exposing herself with a candle. She’d borrowed her uncle’s dagger in the illusion that it would keep her safe if animals or people accosted her, but she wished she had the faith in Fate the others exhibited when confronted with circumstances that common sense declared dangerous.
A horse’s snort and the footfalls of hooves crunched nearby, sending her to crouch behind a young tree. She reached for the hilt, though her heartbeat sped with hope. Perhaps she need not wait another day to see Tehveor after all. It was hard to tell, now that he’d lost his horse and the rider was cloaked, concealing his shape. The red horse looked nearly a dark purple in the night, and the cloak was black.
Her heart slammed as the rider pulled the reins toward her. When his face dropped to her tracks, she stood, welding the blade, braced to run.
“Who are you!” she demanded, hardening her voice to cover the tremble.
The figure continued to sit on the horse, giving no response at all. Should she run toward the caves or away? The caves were closer – they would help – but she lead a stranger straight into Sentarra, and they hadn’t taken kindly to Decharo’s exposure of the caves.
The voice was young, but retained a smooth, dark tone as he asked, “What is your purpose with Celestion?”
Was this Fate?
Her heart slammed as her fingers tightened on the dagger. When she didn’t reply, the man continued the questioning. “How willing are you to protect him?”
Was he threatening her? Or threating Tehveor? What if the boy wasn’t at the castle recovering from an illness or injury? She swallowed, demanding. “What are you talking about?”
“Are you protecting him because of your calling?” the man asked. “Or is there something more?”
Something more? Did he think she had an agenda? Or feelings for Tehveor? And what business was it of his anyhow? He had no right to question her. But he was on a horse, he carried a sword, and they were alone in woods where patches of snow mingled with thorny briers. She couldn’t flee, so she’d have to fight.
His voice softened as he said, “Eslaveth, Tehveor isn’t who you think he is. I’ve seen parts of the legend that others have not. Perhaps Fate has sent you to protect him, but you cannot trust him.”
She frowned. She trusted Tehveor and strangely, always had. It was Sentarra that unsettled her.
“Meeting me with a cloaked face in the middle of the woods at night, doesn’t make me eager to trust you either.”
“Nor do I expect you to,” the man replied. “You have brains about you. I wouldn’t bother warning you, had you not.”
She lifted her chin, hoping she looked like she knew more about this situation than she did. “Warn me about what?”
“Celestion has two sides.” The man held up gloved fingers. “The legend told in the caves stops when he becomes king. But the legend from Sentarra itself, from the place and people he will rule, foretells that his power will corrupt him. He will change after he becomes king.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Eslaveth demanded.
“So you may leave,” the man answered. “Fate has drawn you, but it has not yet secured you. Tehveor ascension to the throne depends largely on you. If you were to refuse your part, Tehveor could not take the throne, and it would not destroy him. Nor you.”
Her face was so tight that it hurt. There was no reason why she should believe this man, but there was less reason why he should try to scare her from Fate when everyone insisted she had no choice in the matter unless he didn’t want Tehveor to take the throne and meant to undermine it.”
“And if I were to do my part?” she asked. “What happens then?”
“The legend goes on,” he said. “Tehveor will become king, but he will fail. He will gradually destroy the kingdom, then you, and finally himself. He has given himself to Fate, and that is what Fate has decreed.”
He wasn’t making any sense, and likely wasn’t telling the truth, but she pretended to believe him. “I thought Fate was his friend.”
“It is his friend. But you heard him say the other day that once he becomes a ruler, Fate will not dictate his life.”
Tehveor had said that though she hadn’t realized anyone had overheard.
“He’s already begun to resist Fate,” the man said. “Once he becomes king, he will turn on it – and if he does – it will turn on him.”
“Tehveor is dedicated to Sentarra,” Eslaveth said. “He has no intentions of turning on it.”
“Then why isn’t he here?” Anger crept into the voice. “He’s not strong enough for the role.” He brought the horse close to her, so close that she stepped backward into a thorny bush. But his whisper weighted her. “He obeyed the king this week and gave him his back for a beating with as little resistance as he showed when he was commanded to kill your father. But he didn’t tell you that part of it, did he? And likely he won’t tell you about the beating, either.”
Her father?
The man was mad. His eyes glinted in the moon though she could see little else. “The king killed my father,” she said. “Tehveor was a child then.”
“A child can kill,” the man said. “Ask him about it. And after you’ve seen your answer for yourself, you ask him everything else that’s been knocking about in your head. But you must ask him quickly. If you stay here much longer, you’re going to be trapped with the rest of us. Only worse, because you’ll have to marry him.”
“Marry?” she sputtered.
“Aye,” he answered. “He didn’t tell you about that now, either, did he?”
Thorns or no, she scrambled further into the bush, fighting her way to the other side, but the branches grabbed her skirt. She fell backward into the snow, too entangled to rise. While she rent her dress with a reckless struggle that gashed her legs, the man rode around the bush. He lowered his arm, but she didn’t take it, hobbling stubbornly to her own feet, though the thorns still jabbed her skin.
Another ring dangled from a chain, a cluster of crystals pulling it toward the snow and concealing their beauty. “I’ll not stop you if you accept his ring,” he said. “But if you change your mind – at least if you change it soon – put on this one instead. I’ll see it and know, and I’ll help you break free.”
Her hand took the ring so he’d go away, even as her mind screamed not to accept it, not to believe any of it. Apparently satisfied with rattling her to the core, he left, riding his horse back into the trees parallel to the caves. Her own father told her that Tehveor was worthy of their trust, worthy of their lives even. But her father was dead, whether by the Erish king or –
She shook her head. She needed a fire and sleep and the safety of her uncle’s walls to drive away the distortion that the stories of Sentarra seeped into her everyday life. When she woke, she’d have the distance she needed to think logically. Tehveor had never given her a reason not to trust him, and this man had given her no reason that she should. A man in a black cloak who warned her Tehveor would turn against Fate didn’t mean that man was Fate or even the man that Decharo claimed to be Fate. So why did she assume his authority?
Her steps halted before she quickened them. It was because he’d told her what Tehveor had said. He’d told her what had happened to Tehveor when the rest of the Sentarrians’ were speculating. The king had beaten him.
Her heart seized. Tehveor had been beaten hard enough to keep him from Sentarra for four days. Galephy was massive, his arms as thick as a soldier. She couldn’t protect him – not at the castle, not from the king. Who was protecting Tehveor now?
She blew out a breath, shaking her entire body to shed herself of the feelings. If Tehveor had been beaten, he could hardly hide it even after a week. Then again, he couldn’t compelled to show anything more than his face and hands.
When she heard the second hoofs, she spun, too angry to be frightened. But the horse was the dappled animal Tehveor had brought last time he was here. And the cloak was blue – covered with the designs of the Erish court.
“Tehveor!” His name burst from her mouth.
Tehveor pushed his hood back, sending her a smile. “I worried you’d be out here walking alone without me. Are you coming or going?”
“I was going,” she answered. “Are you alright? He didn’t hurt you?”
“I’m alright,” he said. But he didn’t offer his hand to pull her onto the horse, either. And his stance was stiffer than normal.
She swallowed, stepping closer. “Did the king beat you?” He flinched, and she added quickly. “Don’t lie, Tehveor. Not to me.”
He gripped the reins, and the scars of his palms peeked out beneath the leather.
“Don’t tell,” he said. “And I won’t lie to you.”
She reached to steady herself against the saddle, unsure how much of the nausea was for his ordeal and how much was realizing one thing the man said was true.
“Are we supposed to marry?” she asked.
The horse shifted its weight away from her. She wasn’t sure whether or not Tehveor had, but he flinched again. “I don’t know. The legends don’t say much of who I’m to marry. Some say the second princess but others, the third.
And now both men were speaking the truth, and it was irksome to realize half the caves knew whom she was to marry before she herself. And – Tehveor? She’d been marrying Celestion, but she’d also be marrying the boy who had ridden by the inn each morning.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” Tehveor said. “Because I don’t know for sure. And I don’t – well, I don’t want to make any assumptions.”
Neither did she. She couldn’t even decide if the flush was stunned anger or suppressed intrigue. She stared straight ahead at his leg because she couldn’t look at his face. But she stuffed the plethora of thoughts away and whispered the thing she wanted to know the most.
“Did you kill my father?”
The world froze so quickly, she nearly felt the words float away. She couldn’t move more than her eyes, but when she lifted them, Tehveor was as frozen as the rest of the forest. The moonlight made him shockingly pale, made his eyes glimmer.
“Who told you that?” he whispered.
She couldn’t have answered him if he’d commanded her. She stepped backward, willing him to deny it, even if it was a lie.
“You did?”
Perhaps Fate had bound them. Her body swayed from him, but her feet stayed rooted, something deeper held taut between them. Something she wanted him to pull, bringing them back together and restoring the comfort – and something she wanted to cut, sever herself from and run. Perhaps he sensed it as well because his mouth moved without saying anything.
His nod, as imperceptible as it was, vibrated the string. Her backward step snapped it. The questions, the suspicion she’d pushed down in the caves, the discomfort that made her draw closer to Tehveor and away from his friends, crowded around her as she broke free of whatever he’d used to entice her. The web the man had warned her about.
And she would escape it.
“Eslaveth, wait,” Tehveor said.
But, even though he could overtake her on a horse, she ran. Her dress hung in shreds before she reached the edge of the woods. The stones of the road, the boards of the inn’s porch, seeped into her mind enough to slow her before she burst through the door and roused half the inn. She stood with her hand on the door, panting before she turned to the stable. She needed to move, needed to pace, needed to force the fear into her steps and trod it to pieces.
She burst through the stable doors, bringing the room alive like a wasps nest. The horses backed up, tossing their heads and several men encircling a lantern on the ground sprang back like water from a dropped rock. Three charged her.
“Stop, it’s Eslaveth!” Danel’s shout stopped boys in front of her.
He’d leaped over a feeding trough, grabbing her arm and planting himself in front. Their feet skid as the boys fell back.
“What are you doing here?” Danel demanded.
“What are you?” she threw back before she realized.
Plotters.
She swung her face from his to Reshton’s who glared from the corner. Back to Danel who’s chest heaved and she couldn’t tell if he was angry with her or afraid for her.
“Doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “We’ll both be silent, and we’ll both be fine.”
“She’ll tell,” Reshton growled.
The boys hesistated, glancing toward each other for guidance.
Her heart seized and fell as she recognized every face. Not plotters. These were her friends, they couldn’t be plotters.
But Wendelis stood in the corner, turning from her, and the shame in his face gave the truth away. He winced but raised his head.
“She’ll listen to reason,” he said. “We can’t kill her. We’ll have to convert her.”
Who’d converted him? Breon?
Her cousin’s arm shook as he pulled her toward the circle again. “Eslaveth knows more about it than any of us,” he said. “If anyone can approach the royal family with our terms, it would be her. And she will, even if she doesn’t agree with us” he ordered eyeing her, “because she doesn’t want them killed any more than we want to kill them.”
“The terms are fair,” Wendelis said. “The king would have the choice to resign and pass the throne along to his son. His family could go on ruling with no bloodshed, only now they’d be held in check. Others – people representing us – would have to agree to the terms.”
Reshton shook his head. “If we’re to have a new kingdom, it’s best to wipe it clean and start over.”
“We don’t have the means to fight,” Wendelis said quickly. “And it’s not necessary. If we set out to murder the king, we’ll have to destroy his supporters as well, and I’m not willing to do that.”
“No more said tonight,” Danel said. “We’re done here. I’ll ensure she doesn’t talk.”
“And if she does,” Reshton asked.
Eslaveth stood still, feeling Danel’s fingers tighten on her elbow. She kept her eyes on the floor. Wendelis swayed toward her as taunt as an arrow on a string, but his eyes were on Reshton. She saw Danel’s hand snake around onto his dagger. It glistened in the torchlight as he pulled it free and the blade glittered in front of his face as he held it toward Reshton.
“I will stake my life on her silence,” he said. “She will not speak, but if she were to, then I am yours to do as you wish.”
Eslaveth closed her eyes against the barbaric practice, feeling a glimmer of surprise at her cousin’s loyalty.
“He’s right,” she said. “I won’t speak.” She lifted her eyes toward the boys repeating the words, “The king killed my father. I have no opposition to his death.”
She felt her chin tremble, felt their eyes on her.
Reshton’s fingers tightened on the hilt, taking her cousin’s blade from him. “If you or she betrays me, Danel,” he said. “I will kill your entire family.”
“I understand that,” Danel said. “But I’m not worried about it. Because I don’t break my word. And even Eslaveth wished to save the king, she’ll want to save us more.”
Wendelis stepped forward, taking Danel’s hand without looking at her. “Good night, then,” he said.
The other boys followed suit, and she kept her eyes turned down. The boy with the dagger brandished it on his way out the door.
Danel released her elbow, but neither of them moved. She swallowed, then whispered, “Thank you.”
“Why did you come out here?” he snapped.
“I didn’t know you were out here, I swear,” she answered. “I didn’t know anyone was here.” She turned to watch him as he picked up the candle from the floor. “This could lead to a battle.”
“Aye,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to prevent.”
“Please, keep trying,” she whispered. “We’re already on the brink of war.”
“I know.” He turned, and the candle lit the stubble that had begun to make him look more like a man. “But the battle is already starting, and I don’t think anything or anyone can stop it.”
Apparently the prophets hadn’t thought so either. Was that the freedom Celestion was to lead his people from? Tehveor, from his own people? Was this the battle that Shannondant’s father would turn the tide to win? And were they fighting with Erilerre or against?
“You can’t,” she said. “You can’t fight either for or against anyone. You just handed to your dagger to your closest friend.”
He nodded. “He’ll use it too. So don’t give him the chance.”