Warning: Contains spoilers for Promising Light, book #1 in the series.
The last time Grace had made this journey, she’d been kidnapped. Sitting in the prince’s carriage, she watched the trees pass them. The foliage was changing, becoming less green. The air was less humid with each day.
Grace thought back to when she and the prince had first traveled to Nyad more than five weeks ago. Before the shape changers told her she could break the curse on their family. Before she decided to help them. Before she killed a man who was trying to take her back home. Before she traveled into Mumbar Jungle, found the ancient texts, and broke the curse that had killed Avialie children in the womb for ten years.
She hated to think of any of that. Instead, she dwelled on the smiles and quiet conversations she and William exchanged. She remembered when he first told her to call him William instead of ‘Your Highness.’ She remembered when he asked for her courtship.
Despite her best efforts, thoughts of Dar colored her memories. She couldn’t believe she’d felt so strongly for him, and she couldn’t tell if she still did. Whenever they stopped on the road for a break, she watched the guards pull Dar off of his horse. He wore Mahri chains and the same bloody clothes from when they’d left the jungle four days ago. She couldn’t help watching him for a few moments. She felt so drawn to him, but then thoughts of William would encompass her mind, and she would turn away to find the prince.
On the third day of their travels, they set out from Ridgefield, due to arrive in Renaul that night. It’d been weeks since Grace had been home. Her stomach lurched just thinking about it. She’d have to deal with rumors about her supposed kidnapping. She’d have to part from William to go to her family’s manor. She shuddered.
At a midday break, William joined her in the carriage, and her father left to ride with another. She smiled at William warmly. His dark blonde hair fell around his forehead. She briefly wondered what their children might look like. Fair-haired, to be sure, but would they have his blue eyes or her brown ones?
“How are you feeling?” William asked.
“Good, now that you’re here.” She paused. “Although. . .I’m a bit nervous about going home.”
“Are you? Why?”
Grace played with a ribbon on her dress. “I don’t want to face the gossip. I also. . .” She stared at her lap. “I don’t want to go my family’s manor. I want to stay with you.” She ventured to look at him, trying to keep her face clear of unease.
“Actually. . .” William reached out to still her twitching fingers. “Your father and I think you might be safest if you stay at the palace.”
“Oh, William, that would be wonderful,” she said breathlessly. She paused. “But what do you mean? You don’t think I’d be safe at home?”
“Not from the Avialies. I’m not sure what they’re going to do next.” He gazed out of the carriage’s open window, biting his lip.
“They got what they wanted from me, didn’t they?” she asked. “I broke the curse.”
“So you say.”
Grace frowned. “I did. I don’t know why you don’t believe me.” She was fairly sure Kilar and Tisha didn’t believe her, either, though they did believe her when she said Sierra had the ancient texts. Grace tried not to think of what would happen to Sierra if they would find her. She only wanted to please William—Sierra would have to take care of herself.
William looked at her, his brow furrowed. “Holding hands with another Avialie doesn’t seem to be enough to break a curse like that.”
“Sierra isn’t an Avialie. I told you, the two of us were marked to protect them.” She shook her head. “And we did it, and it’s over now. They shouldn’t want me anymore.”
William said nothing at first. The silence stretched on, and Grace fiddled with her ribbon again, wondering what she could say to make him happy. He’d been so hesitant with her since they’d been reunited. She wanted to make things right, and she couldn’t count the number of times she’d apologized. She’d do it again, but last night at dinner, he’d told her that she apologized so much he was beginning to think she was only saying it because she thought it was what he wanted hear.
“How can you have changed so much from that day in Aron?” he asked. “How can you be fighting for them one second and not care the next?” He leaned forward, setting one of his elbows on his knee. “If you’re trying to be a spy, you’re being much too obvious.”
Grace gasped. “How can you think that? William, I told you. . .I care about you.” She would have told him she loved him if her father hadn’t warned her against it, saying she’d seem desperate. “And I’m—” She cut off the apology before she said it. “I’m finished with the Avialies.” Even as she said it, she thought of Dar. She hesitated before continuing, “But Dar. . .”
“But Dar,” William scoffed. He leaned back. “That’s what our courtship has been about since day one. But Dar.”
“I just don’t want him to be hurt,” Grace said.
“He’s broken the law.”
“How? I told you he didn’t kidnap me.”
“He assisted in Sierra and Evan’s escape from Rahuda,” William said.
Grace sighed. Did she want to argue with him about how Sierra and Evan had been unjustly arrested? Was upsetting him worth it? “I know. I’m concerned for his safety, though, especially with Tisha and Kilar.”
“Let’s talk of anything but Dar. You can’t do a thing for him right now.”
She nodded, glancing out the window. “Do you remember our trip to Nyad? When this all started?”
“Yes, of course.”
She launched into conversation about the trip, avoiding Dar or the Avialies or any other unpleasant topic. She talked about the circus – but not Sierra – and Governor Peter’s family and his unique manor. Nagging at the back of her mind, however, was Dar’s fate.
* * *
Dar gazed up at the palace, wondering what awaited him. Kilar had questioned him for hours the day after they captured him in the jungle. Dar knew Grace would probably give them all the information they wanted, but it still felt wrong answering the questions. He lied, but Kilar knew when he wasn’t telling the truth and would wave to Kris the Thieran.
He stopped lying after three of those tortures, hoping and praying that Sierra and the others knew that they would be exposed by Grace and Dar.
Dar had little idea what had happened to the others, and every moment that passed without new information was agonizing. The Protectors were careful not to discuss anything in front of him. All that he knew was they hadn’t found Sierra or the ancient texts yet. Dar guessed that the elders from Jolen had come to the aid of the Haltar Avialies and taken them in.
If only Dar and Grace had escaped with them. If only Dar hadn’t been stabbed, or Grace had let him go.
Dar had been chained for days, and his arms were sore from little use. The Mahri manacle on him was sucking his energy, but he knew he should get used to it. He thought of his cousin Evan. How had he survived two whole years of captivity with the Protectors?
When they reached the palace gates, the party went to the stables. Tisha pulled Dar off his horse. Dar stumbled, and Tisha motioned to Kris. The massive man approached, and Dar’s muscles tensed as he remembered the pain from the interrogation. The Thieran hadn’t touched him the whole journey, so Dar forced himself to relax as Kris came to stand next to him. He crossed large, hairy arms over his broad chest, his gaze fixed on Dar.
The prince and Grace stepped out of their carriage. Grace’s gaze found Dar, and for a moment, it seemed like there was no love potion. Her mouth fell open a bit, and she took half a step towards him, her brow knitting in worry. Then she stopped and looked over her shoulder at the prince, and Dar lost her again.
Grace turned away and touched William’s arm softly, a look of longing on her face. Dar bit down on his tongue. It was a like a fresh wound every time she looked at him like that. At first, William rebuffed everything she did, but Dar could see the prince was growing used to Grace’s new behavior. Now, he held his arm out for Grace and escorted her to the front doors.
Tisha and Kilar spoke for a moment, and Tisha followed the prince and the General. Kilar motioned for Kris and Dar to follow him. Dar’s legs were stiff at first, then he came to appreciate the exercise after a long day of riding. The granite palace stretched over their heads, casting them in shadow as they walked around the building. They passed through a moss-covered gate and Kilar led them to a set of doors in the back of the palace.
The doors opened to a staircase leading down. As they descended, the warmth left the air, and they entered a low, long corridor that felt more like a tunnel. Kilar knocked on the third door on the left and opened it without waiting for a response.
Inside, three men played cards at a table. They looked up at the open door. Two seemed uninterested, returning to their game.
The third sighed and stood up. Dar saw the sword in his belt and noted his gnarled nose and muscular shoulders. “Yes, Kilar?” the man asked.
“I’ve got a worker for you,” Kilar said. He turned to Dar and pulled a key from his pocket. For a moment Dar thought Kilar might actually take off the manacles, but he only unhooked the chain. Dar stretched his shoulders, wincing at the pain. “These manacles stay on, same as Vin.”
Dar’s heart leapt. Vin?
“Yes, sir,” the man with the gnarled nose said.
“He’s very violent and he’s not to ever be alone with himself, Vin, or Vin’s wife,” Kilar said. “They’ve been convicted of the same crimes, and I don’t want them conspiring.”
“I want him far from court and the nobles.” Kilar turned to Dar and lowered his voice. “One wrong thing, and I’ll throw you in a cell where you belong. And I don’t care what Lady Grace has taken or whose daughter she is; I’ll kill her if I have to.”
Dar’s teeth clenched at the threat. If anyone in the castle touched Grace, they wouldn’t last long. Dar gave Kilar a curt nod, rubbing his upper arms.
Kilar flicked his head at Kris, and he and the Thieran left. Dar and the man with the gnarled nose both breathed with relief.
“What’s your name?” the guard asked.
“I’m Jon. This is Bailey and Mex.” The two card players grunted. “You may think you’re lucky you’re not in the dungeons, but we’re short on men, and you’ll do any work we need you to. Don’t cause any trouble. If you do, you’ll end up back with Kilar.”
“Is Vin working in the castle?” Dar asked.
“Yeah, but you won’t be seeing him much. You heard Kilar!” Jon said. He looked at the other men, obviously the one in charge. “I’ll be back. I’m going to get him some decent clothes.”
Dar glanced down at his bloody, dirty clothes. He probably smelled like a pigsty. Jon and the others were in plain brown slacks and white tunics with the royal emblem.
Jon motioned for Dar to follow him down the corridor. “These are the servants’ quarters for males. Since you’re a prisoner, you’ll be staying in here.” He walked through the last door on the right. It was a smelly room with a collection of cots and rucksacks. “There’s a guard by the door all night, so don’t try anything funny. You can have this cot.” Jon pointed at a cot in the corner. “It was Khan’s, but he died last week. I’ll get you a uniform, too. You look like hell.” He hesitated. “It’s pretty late, too. You should probably just clean up and wait for dinner. We can start you tomorrow.”
The male servants’ bathing room was nothing but a small closet with a drain, a tiny window at eye-level, and just enough room for Dar and a bucket or two of water. He examined his stomach; whatever Kris had done had only left a small scar.
The washing was refreshing—nothing like a bath back at home, but better than anything he’d had since Di’s house in Aron. He had blood all over him—his own, Leck’s, Arlan’s—as well as dirt, dead bugs from the jungle, and a thin layer of sweat. He scrubbed the grime off with the first bucket of water Jon had given him and rinsed it all away with the second. He felt like the washing helped clear his mind, too. The others would come for Grace soon. If they didn’t, he’d have to find a way to get her out. To get both of them out.
Dar pulled on the brown slacks and white shirt. Jon was still waiting in the corridor when Dar got out.
“Long washing,” Jon said, “but you were pretty filthy.”
Dar shrugged. “I haven’t had the best week.”
“What were you convicted for?” Jon asked, leading Dar back to the room where the other men were.
“Oh, this and that.” The official charges were helping Sierra and Evan escape from Rahuda and possibly assisting in the murders of the guards. Addled as Grace was, she still stood by the fact that nobody kidnapped her and she left of her own accord.
Jon laughed. “I’ll bet.”
Back in the card playing room, Dar noticed there were a few other small tables. Jon returned to his game, and Dar sat at one of the tables, trying to think of a way to convince the prince and the Protectors to let Grace go. He’d run out of clever ideas long ago, though. At this point, he may just have to wait to see what happened. But if he waited, who knew what could happen to Grace?
The door opened, and a few men in the servants’ uniform trailed in. Dar jumped to his feet when he saw a familiar face with a scar running down its features. “Vin!”
Vin glanced up, his eyes wide, and a grin broke out on his face. They closed the distance between them and hugged. Vin’s shoulders were bony, the excess muscle he usually had nearly gone. “Oh, it’s good to see you!” Vin clapped his back.
“All right, break it up,” Jon called.
Dar pulled away, blinking away tears. “You’re all right. Where’s Amina?”
Vin’s smile faded a bit. “With the female servants. She does laundry and seamstress duties.”
“Is she all right?”
Dar noted the bags under Vin’s eyes, the way his skin sagged. “I think so,” Vin replied. “I don’t see her much, but from what I hear, she’s fine.”
Dar winced, running a hand through his hair. Vin and Amina were here as prisoners because of him and Grace—they’d sought refuge at their house when running from the Protectors. When they inevitably showed up and Grace, Dar, and Sierra escaped, they arrested Vin and Amina and pinned them with the crime of kidnapping a noble. “Oh, Vin, I’m sorry about what happened.”
Vin shrugged and motioned for Dar to sit down. “I guess we should have thought it through a little more. What the hell’s been happening?”
They sat down at the table. Dar could feel the gazes of the men around them as they watched and listened to their reunion. He dropped his voice, trying to sound casual at the same time. “Well, a lot’s been happening. . .” He trailed off. “We’ve been traveling all over the damn country, plus Kleisade. . .Grace and Sierra. . .they think they did it.”
Vin didn’t ask what he meant. His face paled, and he stared at Dar. “What? How?”
“I don’t know, really,” Dar said quietly. “Grace didn’t tell me all the details.”
Vin covered his mouth with his hands. “How does they know it worked?”
Dar swallowed, glancing around the small room again. There were about ten men now, half of them playing cards, the others talking quietly or half-sleeping at the tables. “I don’t know, but I think she’s right. I think it worked. She wouldn’t say it unless it did.”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s somewhere here at the palace,” Dar said. As much as he wanted to be honest with Vin, maybe hiding the truth of the love potion would protect Grace. Dar wanted the prince to know about it purely out of selfish reasons, but he hated to think how William might respond if he truly knew. “She wanted to go home.”
“She helped us, and she said that’s all she could do. She wanted to be back with her family.” Dar looked across the room at the door, avoiding Vin’s eyes.
“But I don’t understand. . .”
“Come on, Vin, don’t you think she’s done enough for us?” Dar crossed his arms. “Let’s just leave it.”
Vin looked ready to argue, but the door opened, and a portly man in an apron came in. He held a crate and he dropped it on the table where Jon sat. The other men got to their feet, including Vin. “Come on, or you won’t get anything to eat,” Vin told Dar.
The crate was full of food: chicken bones, rotten oranges, crusty bread. There was some kind of order to the grabbing, but Dar couldn’t figure out what it was. Everyone had food when they went back to their tables, but it was the bigger, meaner men who had the more edible stuff.
Dar was glad Grace had better accommodations, even though it was because she’d taken a love potion. The thought made his stomach twist. He’d never forget the sound of her voice when she told him she loved him. He only wished they’d said it to each other earlier.