His legs shook by the time Tehveor reached Shaton. He held the reins as Daton saddled the animal, wincing when Shaton tossed his head in protest of going into the wind.
“One more ride,” he said. “Then you rest.”
Daton’s mouth perked, but he said nothing as he stepped back. “Do you need help mounting?”
“No, I’m fine,” Tehveor said quickly. He still pulled in an extra breath before he lifted himself into the stirrup, swinging onto Shaton’s back in an unusually clumsy movement.
Daton winced, handing up the reins. “Must you go? You — you could stay here for good.”
Tehveor let out a slow breath. “No. I can’t do that. Not to my family. Not to those men out there.”
Daton dropped his eyes, glancing to the side.
“It will be alright,” Tehveor said. “I’ll return tomorrow or as soon as I safely can.”
Daton nodded and Tehveor felt the man’s eyes on him as he rode from the caves. He found one set of tracks, then followed it around the base of the cliffs until five riders dotted the meadows.
One shouted, then pushed his horse into a canter. A soldier reached him first and Tehveor braced, but no scolding would come. Not from this man, though his jaw bulged a bit.
“We’ve been searching for you, Sire,” he said. “His Majesty has summoned you.”
Tehveor caught the reply before it reached his tongue and it came in a garbled response he hoped the man didn’t understand. “I was riding.”
Away from the walls of Sentarra, his skin tingled with something akin to shame. Perhaps it was the reproaching looks of the next two soldiers who halted nearby, or the same general who had been sent after his mother when he was a child who trotted close with the familiar suppressed fury.
“It is not safe,” he said, “for a member of the royal family to leave the castle walls unaccompanied.”
Tehveor swallowed, wondering if Master Gregorn would still insist that he should come in the middle of the day.
“I’m sorry, I…” He cut himself off, realizing every explanation he’d planned faltered when faced by five men with children and wives on the line. He swallowed, ducking his head. “I’m sorry.”
If any of the Sentarrians were watching, they were going to be horrified at his changing demeanor.
The general gathered his reins, flicking his wrist toward the men to turn back. “I fear you will be,” he replied quietly. “Whatever you sought to leave behind will only be worsened by running.”
Anger flickered as he cast a glance back toward the caves; an entire kingdom waiting for him to save them with little idea of how many people in the castle also depended on his cooperation for their safety.
He rode quietly, offering no explanation and ignoring both glares and the pitying glances sent his way. He turned his focus inward, monitoring how much strength returned his trembling limbs, how deep of a breath he could coax into tight lungs.
Shaton protested as they passed the tunnel in the woods that would take him straight to his bedroom, loosing the horse to find his own way to the fields. The closer they rode to the castle gates, the more Shaton danced beneath him, sensing his fear. Tehveor reached to pat his neck, imagining for one moment what it would be like to gallop back to Lord Lesonna’s estate and leave castles and kings behind forever. But the gate shut behind him with a clatter that rattled his heart.
There was nothing to be done. Nothing. He must face the king, endure whatever the man doled out, and tomorrow the sun would rise and he’d be one day closer to becoming king.
He slid from the stirrup, stumbling against Shaton’s side as his knee collapsed. Someone grabbed his elbow. He rested his head against the animal, whispering, “I’m sorry.”
Shaton turned his head to nudge his shoulder and Tehveor huffed a laughed before he backed away. The general who held the reins, looked toward the wall, releasing a harsh breath.
“Take care of him?” Tehveor asked.
The general jolted, then swallowed. He gave a short nod before his eyes moved to Tehveor. “I’ll do my best.”
The response made no sense and Tehveor’s eyebrows dropped, but there wasn’t time to worry about Shaton being properly cooled off. There wasn’t time to worry about anything, because the king blocked the sunlight in the doorway.
Everyone stiffened, every eye dropped to the floor. Tehveor turned to face the king, hoping the man would order him into private quarters before scolding him and simultaneously wanting to draw closer to his entourage for support they couldn’t give.
Galephy’s mouth drooped, lacking even the cruel amusement that normally accompanied his displeasure. His eyes scanned the group, then lifted his chin to the general.
“Where was he?”
“He was riding, My King,” the general answered. “In the meadows by the cliffs to southern bogs.”
The man hesitated before replying, “Yes.”
The king wouldn’t be happy with such a general answer, but the man had no details to give.
Tehveor spoke before Galephy suspected him of lying. “It’s true, My King. I took the horse out, and encountered them there. I didn’t know you had called for me.”
The silence crept into his head before the king eyed the general. “Your men are dismissed. Stay nearby and wait for orders.”
The general swallowed. “Yes, My King.”
Tehveor shrank as Galephy’s eyes turned onto him and the man jutted his head toward the stable door. “Walk with me.”
He didn’t want to walk with him, but he fell into step one pace behind. Before they’d rounded the stable, Galephy asked, “Where were you?”
“I went for a ride,” Tehveor answered. “In the woods, the meadows. I had no true destination.”
“All morning,” Galephy commented. “Your horse would be soaked after such a lengthy ride, do you not agree?”
“I rode him to a quiet spot and rested there to think,” Tehveor answered.
The king’s mouth perked. “Oh? What did you think about?”
Tehveor realized that somewhere in the recent past, he had advanced from twisting the truth to telling actual lies. It was coming easier, though he needed to take lessons from Darshon for convincing subject matter.
“My life,” he answered. “What I want to do with it.”
“And what do you want to do with it?” Galephy asked.
Tehveor swallowed, searching for an answer that would cause no harm when Galephy destroyed it. “I want to train with Joshah,” he answered. “I’ve been practicing with him, and I think that sort of life would suit me.”
The king broke into genuine laughter and Tehveor peered at him.
“A soldier.” Galaphy chuckled. “Your father and your brother are good soldiers, Tehveor. But you are no more cut out for the life of a swordsman than I for the life of a washerwoman.” He turned, frowning down at Tehveor. “Does the sight of blood make you ill?”
Tehveor’s heart lurched as he realized too late, the invitation he’d given the king. “Why should it?” he asked.
Galaphy smiled without mirth. “I am willing to let you and those men go unpunished for your tardiness and foolish ride. But you must tell me true where you were.”
He couldn’t. Even if he made a story about the caves, he couldn’t risk drawing the king’s attention anywhere near Sentarra. Tehveor swallowed, embracing the lie. “I have told you true, Your Majesty.”
Galephy’s chin rose. “Take care, boy. I’ll know the truth, or you will suffer for your silence.”
Every life tucked away in the cave would suffer for his truth. Tehveor swallowed. “I have told you everything, My King. I simply wanted time alone. Nothing more.”
“Then you will ride no more,” Galaphy said. He sent a sharp nod to the general behind Tehveor. “Slit the horse’s throat.”
The general bowed, then spun to stride toward the stable.
Tehveor jolted. “What? No, please. He’s done nothing wrong.”
He stepped toward the stable, but the king seized his wrist, squeezing it hissing, “If you cannot be trusted to tell the truth, you cannot be trusted to ride.”
“Please,” Tehveor sputtered. “Sell him. He’s a fine animal. Punish me, not him.”
“I am punishing you,” Galaphy said. “One more word of protest, and I’ll make you kill him yourself.”
Tehveor squeezed his eyes shut, forcing desperate words back down. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, covering whatever he could have heard from the stable.
He winced when the king spoke. “That’s better. Now go on.”
He should turn to the castle, but he spun back toward the stable, desperately wondering if he could bribe the general to sell Shaton and keep the money for himself. It wasn’t likely, but a groom blocked his way.
“Please, Sire. Don’t interfere. He must obey.”
The groom set both hands on his shoulders. “It’s already done. You cannot save him now. Do not add to the general’s distress.”
Tehveor gripped his hair, turning to kick the side of the door. “I just want to see him!”
“No, you don’t,” the man whispered. “Believe me. You don’t.”
The words settled deep in Tehveor’s stomach, driving him away from the stable. Across the grass where he gasped for air, silently screaming at Master Gregorn for insisting he risk day rides. Cursing Galephy’s depravity. Anything to block the guilt at his own stupidity.
“Tehveor!” Kael galloped down the courtyard stairs, the relief in his voice betraying his ignorance. “We’ve been looking everyone for you.” The prince slowed, peering a bit harder at his face, before glancing back to Darshon who stalled on the top step. “What’s the matter?”
“He killed my horse.”
The sentence stunned both of them, solidifying into Tehveor’s reality and bringing color into Kael’s face.
“I’m sorry,” the prince said.
Darshon let out his breath and sat on the stone wall. “Is that all?”
Tehveor lifted incredulous eyes as Kael’s head lifted toward the sky.
“Darshon!” Kael moaned.
“What?” Concern turned to surprise.
“When will you learn tact?”
“It’s only a horse, Kael,” Darshon replied. “It can be replaced. It’s not as though he killed Ceslaya. Shaton was growing old anyway. Tehveor’s lucky that’s all Father did.”
Kael’s shoulders slumped as he turned toward the boy. “You can’t even be nice, when you’re trying to be nice.”
“I am being nice!” Darshon snapped.
Tehveor blew a hard breath, moving past Kael and brushing past Darshon. Anger pulsed through his body and he sent it into each step. Darshon was right. Such crushing guilt over an animal, but what would he have done if the man had slaughtered one of the soldier’s children in retribution for his silence?
He should have seen it coming. He should have released Shaton, left him in Sentarra, and met the men on foot. He shut the door to his bedchamber, resting his head against it and searching for composure. His mother, no doubt, was searching for him, watching for him to return from Sentarra. She must have been the one who sent the message of the summons.
Had Remarr suffered for not knowing where one of the boys was? He wasn’t in charge of Tehveor the way he was with Darshon and Kael, but having no answer for the boy’s general whereabouts couldn’t have gone well.
Tehveor closed his eyes as Gregorn’s muffled voice came from the far side of the panel. It rattled, still locked from the inside. Tehveor’s hands clenched, but worried about what had happened in Sentarra, he dug the key from the cord around his neck and unlocked the panel, opening it and growling, “I do not want to speak to you right now.”
“You’re not hurt?” Gregorn asked.
Tehveor released a breath and stepped back to make room for the man. “He killed my horse.” His voice shook before he hissed, “I told you I couldn’t ride out in the day! I told they’d follow me and put Sentarra in danger.”
“You did not put Sentarra in danger,” Gregorn said. “Fate gave us warning. We had ample time to draw the soldiers away and safely return you. Decharo lied and said you had already left for the castle.”
“What?” Images of Shaton blew away, jolted out of his grief. Shannondant had said the same thing, but he just now realized its meaning.
“He looked me in the eye and told me that you had already ridden out to the castle.”
“Why?” Tehveor asked.
“I don’t know,” Gregorn answered grimly. “But it will not happen again. He will be tried for treason.”
Treason? No one had ever betrayed Sentarra before as far as he could remember. He didn’t know what the punishment for treason was in Sentarra, but in Eirlerre…
Tehveor’s head snapped up. “You’re going to kill him?”
Gregorn stilled, keeping dark eyes on the curtains behind Tehveor. “He betrayed you. He placed Sentarra in danger. I have no choice in the matter.”
“You can’t!” Tehveor hissed.
“The masters are demanding it,” Gregorn said.
“Tell them I said no,” Tehveor snapped. “They are not to punish him in any form until I am there.”
Gregorn’s fingers curled at his side, writhing under an internal struggled. He swallowed, then said, “You are a prince, Tehveor. If you were king, you could revoke the sentence, but it would not be wise. As a prince, though, you are bound by the law and must punish treachery.”
And there was treachery. Shannondant would not lie and Decharo apparently did not deny the actions. Tehveor swallowed, glancing toward Kael’s room, wishing he could talk to the other prince about this. Kael had found a loophole for Karlyn. There must be one for Decharo as well.
“Decharo has served faithfully for years,” Tehveor said. “’He’s lived there, waking every hour to feed the Circle. He’s never faltered, never complained, and the first time he makes a mistake, he is to be killed for it?”
“That was far more than a mistake,” Gregorn said. “That lie could have led to Sentarra’s discovery. It could have cost you your life. Master Skafar has already sent for the council. Men who do not live in the caves, who don’t know or care about Decharo. A few are already skeptical of your leadership.” He scrunched his eyes, striding farther into the room and wiping his face. “I do not want that boy to die,” he whispered. “But you cannot afford to demonstrate weakness. If you spare him out of favoritism, they will perceive it as weakness. You must prove yourself a reliable king, driving by justice, no matter what you feel inside. Decharo was foolish and ignorant, but his blame is on his own head.”
Tehveor frowned. “If people serve me, I want it to be out of loyalty, not fear. Had Decharo led the king to my door, he would deserve death, but his lie was not malicious. Surely even a stranger can understand that.”
Gregorn blew out a slow breath. “I cannot lie to you. Since you are the prince, you do have the power to lighten the sentence.” He wet his lips, then continued, “It’s foolish on your part. And it may kill him anyway.”
“But what?” Tehveor asked.
Gregorn turned to lean on the desk, gripping the edge. “The law allows a substitution of twenty lashes. But you would have to administer them yourself.”
The relief that there was another choice lasted only seconds before Tehveor’s stomach churned. He was a coward when it came to beatings. He covered his ears on the occasion when a servant was punished in the courtyard. His own back was scarred; white lines from his childhood, pink welts that hadn’t quite healed from the last encounter with the king.
Gregorn didn’t know half of his own punishments, but he knew enough. He set his hand on Tehveor’s shoulder. “Stay away for a few days. When you return, it will all be over.”
“No.” Tehveor shook his head. “Tell the men I will be there for the trial. I will decide then.”
Gregorn nodded once, and a spark of hope was quickly snuffed. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, before ducking back through the panel.
Tehveor sank to the floor, pulling his knees into his chest. He couldn’t beat Decharo. He couldn’t beat anyone. Even if he found a law in the writings as Kael had done, he could not prove that that was what the words said.
When someone knocked on his door, his body tensed so tightly that it hurt. But Setta’s breathless words came through.
She was frightened, and he shoved himself to his feet, hurrying to unlock the door. He was taller than her now, but he accepted her embrace as desperately as a child.
“Darling!” she cried. “He didn’t harm you?”
Tehveor pulled her inside the room and shut the door again. “Mother, it was Decharo who didn’t warn me. He lied and told them I’d already started on my way.”
Setta’s tears dried into confusion. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Tehveor whispered. He leaned against the door, feeling his legs shake beneath him. “But they’re going to kill him for it, and the only way I can stop it is if I — if I beat him myself.”
Setta stared, gripping his arms. “How could they demand that of you?”
“They didn’t,” Tehveor said. “As far as they are concerned, he should be killed. I asked Gregorn if there was any other choice.”
“It’s not a fair choice,” Setta said.
“None of it is fair,” Tehveor whispered. “Decharo has always been loyal. Sentarra is his whole life. It’s perhaps even a stronger dream for him than it is for me, and to turn around and repay everything he’s put into it like… like that.”
He turned away and Setta touched his shoulder.
“Tehveor?” she asked. “How much is Sentarra part of your life? If Fate did not demand it, would you still want to be its king?”
Tehveor studied the panel that offered escape from these walls. Angry with Gregorn for demanding him to spend more time at Sentarra, what would life be without it? Easier perhaps, without the secrets to hide. But even now, he ached to return to the caves, to escape Galaphy. He endured the king’s abuse to protect his mother and sister, his country. But what if he didn’t have that country? What if life consisted of letters to an absent father, of jumping to obey the king as all the servants did, of simply surviving with Kael as his only hope for change?
He nodded. “I want Sentarra,” he said.
Setta clutched the necklace as she walked toward the window. “One thing that I have learned about Sentarra,” she said quietly. “Is that it will demand a choice from you. It will confuse you. It will bring you circumstances you cannot see a way out of. But it will make you stronger. And when you truly know what you want, even the bonds of Fate cannot hold you back from obtaining it — no matter what it is or where it leads you.”