Authors: Barbara Kloss
I peered sideways at Alex. He was doing it right back! Appalled, I punched him in the arm, but it had no effect. No, he didn't stop gawking until the door closed. Alex blinked rapidly and looked at me aghast. His lips parted like he was trying to think of something to say, but his frustration at his own vulnerability had rendered him speechless.
Vera sat smugly on the arm of the couch.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Aegis Del Conte," Myez said, closing the door behind him and shutting out the girl. "I don't keep them because they're resistible." He walked toward the pyramid of barrels and began filling goblets with black liquid. He might as well have been filling them with gasoline for the acrid smell and color.
"So why do you keep them, then?" I asked, annoyed.
"Because they keep me alive." Myez filled another goblet.
?" I retorted.
Myez set down a goblet on his desk. "I do not indulge in my trade, your highness, if that is what you are suggesting. I am a businessman, and this is a town of thieves. There isn't a creature that comes down here without passing through these walls." He gestured to the room. "They pay me in crowns. They pay me more in information, and knowledge is the salvation of the condemned."
"And are you a condemned man, Myez Rader?" I asked.
Those eyes of his kindled with a fire that ran deep. "There isn't a man alive without blemish, your highness. I wager that even you have committed acts you would rather not remember, though whether or not that condemns a man for all eternity, it is not for me to say." He shifted his penetrating gaze to Alex. "King Darius is fortunate to have the unwavering loyalty of the most feared swordsman in all of Gaia. To risk your life so for his granddaughter is quite remarkable in these darkening times. How the spirits must rejoice in such a rare example of fealty."
"I didn't know you believed in the spirits, Myez," he said coolly.
A sardonic glint appeared in Myez's eyes. "You have caught me, Aegis Alexander Del Conte. I do not believe in spirits; I believe in crowns. And if the spirits had crowns, perhaps then I'd believe in them." He looked back at me. "But you asked me a question, your highness, and it would be rude of me not to give you a proper answer. You asked if I consider myself a condemned man." He turned off the spigot and set the last goblet on his desk beside the others. He opened his palm; a small sphere of fire appeared, like a hovering marble of flames. "You've known a life only of light, where the sun illuminates everything it touches in truth, and there it blossoms with beauty and valiance. Your world is good and honest and pure, and its men act with integrity. In your world, there are unspoken rules and the men abide by them." With a turn of his palm, he dropped the fire marble into the goblet. The surface burst into flames, and he repeated the motion with the other three goblets. They burned brilliantly for a few seconds before the fire disappeared into tendrils of smoke.
Fire and Ice. I'd seen the drink at the festival; I'd never had it myself, but they were lethal without the fire. And extremely flammable, according to Vera. I recalled the berries in my boot and crossed my legs.
"But I live where the light does not shine," Myez continued, watching the little tendrils of smoke curl into the air. "In a crypt where truth decays and is feasted upon by rumors like maggots on a rotting corpse. Where evil festers and eats away the flesh of purity like a gangrenous wound, dissolving all hope and goodness and integrity. There are no rules here; there is only survival."
"Perhaps you should move, then," I said.
Myez let out a sound reminiscent of laughter, but it wasn't a joyous sound. "Solutions always seem so simple to the innocent." He paused, but I didn't miss the flash of fury in his gaze. "Excuse me. I did not mean to direct our conversation toward such heavy discourse." He scooped up the goblets and brought them to our table, passing them around. One, he kept for himself, then stepped back and took a sip. "I fear I'm out of practice for having honorable company."
I was about to voice my agreement with this sentiment when Miss Between-the-Sheets Eyes entered with a tray. She set down platters of assorted cheeses and fruits and meats directly on top of Myez's pile of opened scrolls, while making sure to brush her arm against Alex as much as possible. Alex kept his eyes fixed on the tray, and I noticed Myez watching him.
When Miss Between-the-Sheets Eyes had finished laying out our spread, she remained standing beside Alex.
"You may go," Myez said.
Reluctantly, the girl left, but not without one last glimpse at Alex before she closed the door. Alex didn't notice, though, or at least he'd made great effort in staring at the floor.
Myez reached forward and grabbed a slice of white cheese. "For an Aegis, you seem to draw an impressive amount of attention to yourself." He took a bite of his cheese.
Alex's eyes narrowed on Myez Rader.
"Please, let us make a toast." Myez wiped his mouth and lifted his glass.
"To?" I asked.
"To your safety, of course, and that of the realm. I understand the world is facing threats that have lain dormant for almost twenty years."
It was an interesting choice of words, and I watched him closely as I held my goblet. The others held up theirs, too.
"To the king, and may the blessings of Gaia and her spirits—if they exist—forever fall upon you," said Myez, and we all clinked glasses. Everyone took a sip—everyone but me. I pretended to drink and set my goblet down. Something just didn't feel right.
"I must say," Myez continued, scratching his chin, "you've done a remarkable job evading capture thus far, what with Lord Commodus after you…"
"What do you mean Lord Commodus is after me?" I asked. Alex had gone rigid beside me.
Myez's eyes darted between Alex and me. "Do you not know? Have you not told her?" He looked pointedly at Alex, whose expression had hardened like marble. When Alex didn't speak, Myez said, "There is a rather hefty bounty upon you as we speak."
?" I gasped, dumbfounded. "Why? And I thought Lord Commodus was missing…?"
"Oh, no," Myez continued. "He is in Orindor, I assure you."
After what happened at the games, Lord Commodus had disappeared. Or at least it had seemed that way, because no one could find him. Apparently, that was no longer true. "What in the world does Lord Commodus want with me?" I asked.
doesn't want anything with you." Myez looked legitimately surprised. "It's his son he's wagered the bounty for. I can't believe you don't know this, though if you've been gone from the castle for a few days…but I would have thought… No matter."
"It is not your place to—" Alex started angrily.
Myez cut him off. "Tell her the truth? You are her Aegis. It is
duty to tell her the truth."
I clenched my teeth together. "Tell me what?" I looked between Alex and Myez, but Alex was glaring only at Myez.
"As we speak," Myez continued, "there is an army of shadowguard ten thousand strong waiting behind the wall in Alioth."
My eyes widened. "
Myez Rader gave Alex a disappointed look. "I'm afraid that's not all, your highness," he continued. "Lord Commodus has agreed to ally Orinder with Valdon, allowing free passage through Orindor under condition that you marry his son, Lord Danton Pontefract."
The fire crackled and popped in its hearth.
Had I heard him correctly?
Lord Commodus was wagering a truce based on a marriage proposal. And not just any marriage proposal: a marriage—
marriage—to his son. Danton.
I swallowed. And then I momentarily stopped breathing, and I was pretty sure my heart stopped beating for a split second, too. My thoughts whirled, and I might have fallen over if I hadn't already been seated.
That was why I hadn't heard from Stefan.
Lord Commodus was hinging the entire fate of Valdon and
on my acceptance to a marriage to Danton. Because if Orindor didn't help, that meant Alioth was cut off from Valdon, subject to the wrath of the shadowguard, and Orindor would not step in to help when that same army of shadowguard made their way along Orindor's perimeter and straight to Valdon. I didn't know Orindor's role in all of this. It seemed likely Lord Commodus had been granted amnesty of some kind, but those details didn't matter. I searched for a lie in Myez's words, but there was none. Not even the slightest hint of exaggeration.
My fists clenched.
Vera had gone very still at the end of the couch. This had come as a surprise to her, too, but Alex had known. Alex had known and he hadn't said a word of it to me. Why? But when I tried to get a sense for Alex, I found that he'd closed his emotions to me. Where I'd been able to sense him before, he'd erected a great and impenetrable wall between him and me, and this sudden wall disturbed me more than the news.
"I hate to be the bearer of such ill news, your highness," Myez continued carefully, "and I know this must be difficult to hear, but I feel you must know the truth because I admire you. Such tragedy, yet you aren't permitted to mourn as is needed for the human soul. You are expected to act. You are expected to be the strength the people need in a time of uncertainty and unrest. You must always keep emotion at bay and fulfill your duty to your kingdom. It is a difficult position to be in, and even more difficult not to lose your humanity in the process."
I grimaced at what he was suggesting. "I don't believe I asked for your counsel on the matter."
Myez took a sip, watching me over the rim of his glass. I didn't like how he was looking at me. I didn't like the turn of this conversation and I certainly didn't like being down here in this…this
. I wanted out of here where I could think clearly—safely. I stood, but the quick motion made my head spin and I gripped the arm of the couch to steady myself.
The movement did not go unnoticed.
"We need to go." I forced my voice to stay calm. "Thank you for your hospitality, Myez Rader, but, as Vera said, we came to use the shortcut, and it seems you know better than me that time is of the essence."
"I also have news concerning a particular Thaddeus Mendax." Myez wasn't looking at me; he was studying his glass. But at mention of that name, I froze. "I believe he is a…friend of yours?"
I hadn't even let myself think his name since we'd left the castle. I'd put it out of my mind because it was too painful—no,
to think about. It was the one element that teetered inside of me, always threatening to collapse.
I felt the heavy weight of Alex's gaze as I stared hard at Myez.
Myez raised a dark brow. "Like I said, your highness. I am a businessman amongst thieves. There isn't a plot that whispers through these stones that goes unbeknownst to me."
"Then you are no better than they are!" My self-control dissolved into nothing. "You knew about Eris and his plots…you knew what was going to happen to my father and you did nothing!"
He set his goblet down, folded his hands, and put them in his lap. "You and I have very different ideas of 'nothing,' I assure you."
I was so angry I was shaking. "How dare you sit there and pretend fealty to the crown. When I leave this place, I will tell my brother and the entire guard and make sure they know exactly where you—"
, your highness." All cordiality was gone—from Myez's tone, his face, his eyes. Something frighteningly powerful had taken its place, remnants of what I'd witnessed outside. He was done with pretenses, and I had the distinct notion that I would like the real Myez Rader even less.
In a motion too swift for me to register, Alex had drawn his sword and had the tip of it pointing at Myez's throat. Myez stared down the blade, hard eyes fastened upon Alex. He wasn't afraid.
"Don't be foolish, Aegis Del Conte. If you harm me, you'll never get out of here alive. Even if you make it past my giants, you'll never get past the women. That wound to your princess would be worse than any physical harm I could ever inflict upon her."
Fury burned in Alex's eyes, but I could not feel it. The wall he'd constructed was too tall and too strong. "We are done here." Alex's voice was cold as ice. "Daria, Vera…" He stared only at Myez.
"Thaddeus was an orphan," Myez continued, still staring up at Alex. "An orphan at the age of thirteen who appeared at the Academia one day, and if I recall correctly, you weren't particularly friendly to him at first. Or maybe that's because Lord Danton Pontefract had taken pity on him, and you were always at odds with the Pontefracts, though I can't seem to remember why..."
"That's enough." Alex pressed the tip of the sword deeper, puckering the skin in Myez's neck.
"And as punishment," Myez continued, unfazed, "Headmaster Ambrose had Thaddeus live with you at the Aegis Quarters. Something about teaching you a lesson in humility, but I can't remember exactly how it went. Perhaps you can fill us in with the details?"
"I said that's enough." Alex's voice trembled with anger.
"But Thaddeus has such an irresistible personality. It didn't take very long for you to trust him, did it? You even trusted him with
Alex blanched and something like agony filled his eyes. Why couldn't I feel it? Why was he blocking me out?
"You mustn't be too hard on yourself," Myez continued. "Anyone would have made the mistake and everyone did. No one saw what he was because he'd charmed the entire court, just like his father before him. No one had even suspected the darkness inside Lord Eris until the Dark Reign came to pass."
I took a step back and sank onto the couch, my mind reeling.
Eris was Thad's…father?
I felt Myez watching me, waiting for the realization to hit. And, oh, did it hit. It kept hitting and slugging and punching me. I'd watched him do it. I'd watched him stand there while Eris killed my father. I'd watched him threaten Fleck, a boy he'd stood up for countless times. So often I'd wondered why. What could've propelled him to turn on me for that monster? But if Eris really was his father, then I could make the tie. Sort of.