Chapter Twenty

Meeting a Stranger

Joshah watched Ceslaya splash in the brook while Tehveor gazed at the bits of blue showing through the trees, trying to ignore the itching palms beneath the wraps. He hadn’t see Decharo for a week and he worried it was as difficult for his friend to perform simple tasks as it had been for him.

Joshah glanced back toward the cottage where the soldiers assigned to accompany them, lounged, enjoying their own respite. “You know we could have grown up here?” he asked. “If the king hadn’t sent Father to Katal Ieill, he could have lived here with all of us.”

Tehveor rolled his head to peer at the stone cottage, trying to imagine sharing it with his siblings and a father he couldn’t picture. It would never happen, even if their father did manage to return before he left to become king. It was too far from Sentarra. Joshah was too enamored of army life. And it felt wrong to walk away from Kael and Darshon and the queen.

He swallowed, wondering how they had fared over the week. “I still don’t know how Mother convinced him to let us leave.”

Joshah’s lip twitched, though his eyes showed no mirth. “I think he knew she was ready to murder him in his sleep.”

“I’m surprised no one has tried that,” Tehveor said.

“The queen tried to poison him when they first married,” Joshah said.

“Really?” Tehveor asked. “He didn’t have her killed for it?”

Joshah shook his head. “Maybe he would have, but she was carrying Kael.”

Tehveor moaned, laying his arm over his eyes. “Is that why he’s so nervous about her herbs and vials?”

“I doubt it,” Joshah answered. “Father says he’s a bloodhound when it comes to poison. But the ancient peoples used herbs for things besides healing. No one knows how, but I think the king is more superstitious than he lets on.”

So was Setta, but he doubted Joshah had ever seen her jump at a shifting log in a fire, wondering if Fate had taken the form of a flame. Sometimes he wished he could tell Joshah about Sentarra. But Joshah was Erish soldier and always would be. He fought for Eirlerre and swore loyalty to their king, whether he liked him or not.

“Tehveor?” Joshah broke into his thoughts. “I need to ask you something, and I need a truthful answer. No lying.”

A chill swept down Tehveor’s body, but he kept his voice even as he asked, “What?”

“Master Gregorn is around a lot, and he pays close attention to you. And Mother. What’s between them? Does he harbor feelings for her?”

“What?” Tehveor jolted. “No. There’s nothing between them. Mother writes to Father every week. She’s committed to him. Whatever makes you think—”

“I don’t doubt her loyalty,” Joshah said quickly. “But people talk. I didn’t think much of it first, but he comes to the castle at odd times when we have no guests. And he whispers to her in the corners. I don’t understand what he wants with her.”

“Everyone whispers in the corners, Joshah.” Tehveor laughed bitterly. “It’s how we stay alive. You should see some of the notes passed between Kael and the servants. Do you know the servants have warning signals for each other? They have hand gestures and ways they arrange the drapes in the rooms, and a vase that they turn around when the king is in a foul mood to warn others to stay away.”

Joshah spread his hands behind him leaning back as he glanced over. “Are you trying to change the conversation?”

“No,” Tehveor answered, though that was exactly what he was trying to do. “I just think it’s interesting.”

“Why do you defend him?” Joshah asked.

“Who?” Tehveor asked.

“Gregorn?” Joshah asked. “I question his motive, and you jump to defend him like he’s your father.”

“I don’t know anything about having a father, Joshah,” Tehveor said. “I’ve never even see Father. I don’t know him like you do.”

“Father is good,” Joshah said. “And fair. And I don’t think he would trust Gregorn any more than I do.”

“Stop it,” Tehveor interrupted. “I don’t know Father. You don’t know Master Gregorn. He’s not a bad man.”

“I still don’t think you should trust him,” Joshah said.

“Why?” Tehveor rolled onto his stomach to face his brother. “What has he ever done to deserve that?”

“Nothing,” Joshah said. “It’s a gut feeling. I know things about people, and I’m rarely wrong.”

“I think you’re wrong this time,” Tehveor said.

Joshah looked down, snagging a rock and aiming it at the river. “I wish you could meet Father. We’re so close to the army camp. When he is allowed to return to Eirlerre, he comes here.”

“Why doesn’t he come to the castle?” Tehveor asked.

“The king won’t let him,” Joshah answered. “I don’t think he’ll ever let him, honestly. Gaining peace with Katal Ieill is like convincing all the birds to fly north for the winter.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say to Father if I did see him,” Tehveor answered. “To you, he’s a person, but to me,” he shrugged. “He’s only words on a paper.”

“If you were in the army, you could meet him,” Joshah said.

“I told His Majesty I wanted to join you in the army,” Tehveor said. “I think that’s why he burned my hands.”

Joshah sat up, calling, “Ceslaya! Don’t go any farther! Your dress will pull you under!”

The girl spun, and the sun glinted off her curls. “Come with me!” she called.

“Are you trying to drown?” Joshah shoved to his feet.

Ceslaya grinned and stepped closer to the middle of the stream.

“Now she’s just taunting,” Joshah said. Tehveor laughed as his brother pulled off his boots, splashing after the girl.

“That’s enough! Time to learn to swim!”

The girl squealed as Joshah swept her into his arms and threatened to drop her.

“You too, Tehveor!” Joshah called.

“Not today.” Tehveor held up his bandaged hands.

“You need to learn,” Joshah answered.

“I can keep myself afloat,” Tehveor said.

He didn’t like water. He still dreamed of plunging into the depths, of fighting to surface until he woke gasping for breath.

Joshah threw him an unimpressed look. “That’s not swimming.”

He envied his brother’s easy manner and fearless nature. The brother who was able to tell stories of war in somewhat of a humorous manner so that they did not frighten Ceslaya, although his mother grew pale. The brother who would never cower at a beating from the king. The brother whose confidence overflowed enough to convince Ceslaya to get back onto a horse and nearly draw Tehveor into the water that he hated. He wondered why Fate had skipped Joshah and chosen him to become Sentarra’s king.

“You were born here.”

Tehveor glanced at Setta as she lowered herself to sit on the rock beside him. She smiled toward him. “Did you know that?”

“In the cottage?” Tehveor asked.

Setta nodded. “You weren’t supposed to be, but you were. It was during Megra and the fog stayed longer than usual that year. And the moon was full, so bright that it felt like living in a silver cloud. I had seven days with you when I knew no one would find you.”

She sighed, and he frowned, wondering who she’d expected was looking. He watched Joshah towing Ceslaya around the water. “You didn’t hide them.”

Setta’s eyes flickered down the trail the sun created on the water. “They weren’t born with silver eyes.”

He flinched. “What did you think would happen?”

She reached to touch the bandages on his hands. “Everything I feared would happen, has.”

And more, he thought.

“What about Ceslaya?” he asked. “Where did she fit in?”

Setta hesitated. “I intended to tell them that you were dead when born. We did have another child who was. But His Majesty came. He’d already heard you cry, though no one had seen you except for the nursemaid. I begged her to take you, and she left as he arrived. He asked if you were a boy or a girl, but before I could answer, the nurse returned and pushed an infant back into my arms, telling the king that it was a girl with the most beautiful blue eyes that she ever saw.”

The story didn’t make any sense. He scrunched his eyebrows together. “Where did she get her?”

“I don’t know,” Setta said. “She would not answer my questions. She said you were safely on your way to Lord Lesonna’s and that I must not ask about the baby. She said the parents released the baby willingly and would not take her back.” She clenched and relaxed her fingers. “It seems wrong to know that someone is without their child, but what could I do? Perhaps someday, when she’s married, the mother will come forward. Or perhaps she won’t, preferring to know her child is well cared for in a noble family.”

Tehveor squirmed, wishing he had never asked. He didn’t like the idea of anyone taking Ceslaya away through marriage or otherwise. “But you think her family is still alive?”

“I think,” Setta said carefully, “that only desperation could induce me to give up my child. And whoever sent Ceslaya must have felt the same way about her. They were saving her from something and I think they were perhaps the ones who took you to Lord Lesonna’s. They protected my child and I, in turn, sheltered their own.”

He heard, but his attention was drawn to the sound of hoofbeats. Trees lined the road, blocking his view of the rider. With the army camp so near, there was no alarm in a lone rider, but he glimpsed a brown beard, broad shoulders. Perhaps it was the man’s carriage that resembled Galaphy, or perhaps being granted permission to leave the castle seemed like the beginning of a cruel trick.

Tehveor’s heart lurched as he stood. “I’ll be back.”

It wasn’t the king. There was no reason the man would ride here unaccompanied. But when the horse stalled in front of the cottage, out of sight, both his heart and steps picked up. He stepped around the corner, and heard the ring of a sword unsheathed. The blade caught a ray of sun, flashing into his eyes and causing him to stumble back. The rider lowered his weapon, pulling his horse into a standstill and his eyelids slit over the same shade of blue as Galephy’s eyes. He wasn’t as large as the king and his features were smaller and softened.

But Tehveor still caught himself before he went to his knees. The man’s uniform was blue and silver, but elaborate enough to verge on something Kael could don. They eyed each other; the man must not recognize Tehveor’s rank, for he made no movement to swing from his horse. Or perhaps he was too stunned by the silver eyes to remember etiquette.

He stared so intently that Tehveor broke the gaze, turning his face to the side. The man frowned, his face drawn with the disbelief that new Sentarrians often wore upon seeing him for the first time.

But the man asked, “Tehveor?”

Tehveor looked back, again flinching at the man who could easily dress and pass himself as a younger version of the king. Or a brother.

His chest throbbed as the man slid from his horse. His cheekbones, his chin, everything resembled the portraits on the castle walls. It reflected Tehveor’s own face, though their coloring was different.

“You’re here,” the man said, then lifted his eyes behind Tehveor. “You’re all here?”

His voice was low, rich and warm as Setta had described it. Tehveor stared, before he stuttered. “I thought – you were in Katal Ieill.”

“I was. Am,” Terrant said, confirming Tehveor’s guess, but doing little to calm the confusion. “I’ve returned to the army quarters with the terms of peace for their inspection. I was forced to leave in haste without telling anyone, before I was intercepted.” His eyes roved Tehveor as he spoke and he broke off, “Ayth. You’re older than I imagined.”

“I’m nineteen,” Tehveor sputtered.

“Father!” Joshah rounded the corner, bringing relief to the awkward tension. “We were just talking about you! What are you doing here?”

Tehveor backed up as Joshah filled the space between himself and Terrant, hugging the man with a familiarity that Tehveor envied.

“I was about to ask Tehveor the same question,” Terrant answered. “Where is your mother? Are you all here?”

“They’re down at the river!” Joshah stepped back. “Come along. We’ll show you. Does Mother know you’re coming?”

“No one knows,” Terrant said. “King Darragh has proven to be a reasonable man and it looks as though he has a stable hold on the throne. He’s willing to draw up lines of peace, but his enemies planned to raid my quarters to stop me from bringing the treaty for approval.”

Tehveor fell into step at Joshah’s side, trying to follow the conversation.

Joshah grinned. “You think the treaty might actually go through?”

“Soon I hope,” Terrant said. “Not a word, though, about it. I don’t want His Majesty to interfere and send me somewhere else before I can return home.”

Home.

Tehveor glanced at the bandages around his hands, wondering how Terrant’s return would change life in the castle. Would the king continue to single him out, or would he switch his attention to someone else if Tehveor’s father was nearby? And when he left for Sentarra, would Setta choose to stay behind with her husband?

The question didn’t stay long in his mind. Setta glanced over her shoulder at their approach, staring only a second before she pushed herself shakily to her feet.

“Terrant?”

Laughing and crying, she threw her arms around the man and Joshah grinned at Tehveor as their parents kissed so long that Joshah whispered they might as well be on their way.

The man embraced Ceslaya with an acceptance that made Tehveor hug his wounded hands closer to his body. Sentarra allowed him to shelter his mother, but there was no place for an Erish prince. But why couldn’t there be? Why couldn’t he offer his country as a sanctuary for his parents to be together where the Erish king could not order them apart? Why must he choose between his father and his calling?

He had never seen his mother talk so much, never seen her face so animated. He watched them throughout the evening, only turning away when his father’s attention turned toward him. Feeling helpless as his family worked together to create a meal, he sat near the fire, watching the flames and wondering how Decharo was faring.

He winced as he tried to loosen the knots on one of his bandages that Joshah had tied too tightly.

“Do you need help with that?” His father knelt in front of him, taking his hand without waiting for an answer.

His face was so close that Tehveor’s stomachs tighten and he pulled back, unable to anticipate anything but pain from a face so like the king’s.

But Terrant worked efficiently, wincing as he uncovered the burn. “What happened to them?”

Joshah glanced over from the table, but Tehveor only shrugged. “I grabbed an iron like a fool and burned them.”

Terrant sucked between his teeth as he pulled the material away from the full wound. “You certainly did. How long has it been?”

“A week or so,” Tehveor answered. “It was before we came here.”

“How long will you be here?” Terrant asked.

Setta glanced over, before her eyes returned to the iron pan. “We must return tomorrow. The king expects us back.”

“Of course he does.” Disappointment darkened Terrant’s eyes.

“What about you?” Setta asked.

“I expect to be here for three days,” Terrant said. “Then back to Katal Iiell. But the terms are reasonable. I see no reason why they will not be approved.”

“And then you will be back for good?” Setta asked.

“I hope so,” Terrant answered. “I’d better. I’m beginning to dream in T’erish. Perhaps we could live here after all.”

Hope lit Setta’s eyes before they moved to Tehveor’s face and she let out her breath. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’d hate to leave Margaret and the boys.”

And Sentarra.

Tehveor swallowed as Terrant flinched and reached for a wet rag to wring over his hands. “Did he do this?”

Even Joshah glanced away as the room grew silent. Tehveor swallowed, then said, “It was a punishment.”

“For what?” his father asked.

“Being born,” Joshah muttered.

Tehveor’s face burned. “Please don’t make me talk about it.”

Terrant searched his face before his eyes fell. His jaw bulged a bit before he swallowed and repeated, “As I said, perhaps we could live here.”

“For now,” Setta said, “let’s just bring you home. We can decide from there.”

Terrant nodded as he wound a cloth around Tehveor’s hand. “I’ll hound them relentlessly. And the king will never know I’m coming.”

Joshah barked a laugh. “I hope I’m still home for that.”

“Me too,” Tehveor said.

Terrant looked up questioningly, but Tehveor caught his blunder and hissed to distract the man from questions.

“I’m sorry.” Terrant turned his attention back to the injury, then repeated in a far more sober voice. “I’m sorry.”

Setta turned toward the window, rubbing her elbows and Tehveor flinched. She stayed at the castle for him. As long as he was there, he could shield them from most of the king’s abuse. But perhaps Gregorn was right. Perhaps it was growing closer to the time when he should leave for good. To turn his full attention to recreating his kingdom – and to free his mother from the secrets that bound her to the castle and the lies that separated her from her husband.