A rowboat emerged through the darkness, its oars sploshing with every uneven stroke. The young woman at the front raised her lantern, wary of the jagged rocks below. Hiding under the water were a thousand teeth from the nearby cliff, ready to snag the hull and tip them into the sea. Ellia glanced back to the two Moqaran lieutenants. One manned the oars, his knuckles still raw from tackling the assassin to the ground. The other held a tight grip on their gagged and manacled prisoner.
Ellia switched the lantern between arms, hoping it would be enough for the light to punch through the murky waters of Eresdel. A wayward tooth grazed the hull, releasing a baritone snarl and knocking the boat from side to side.
Reina Dadario shot one hand out to steady herself, her breath locked in her throat. Lazden raised the oars, allowing them to drift with the current to help regain their balance.
“Sorry,” murmured Ellia.
“Is everyone okay?” asked Reina.
The prisoner chuckled to himself. They were inexperienced in the sea, that much was certain. Perhaps the two desert lieutenants couldn’t even swim. In one quick move he could grab his spear, capsize them, and let the waves slam their bodies against the cliffs nearby. All he needed was for Lazden to look over his shoulder again.
Reina twisted the gag behind the assassin’s head, pinching a hundred strands of hair in the knot and slowly plucking them free. “Honestly, you’ve pissed me off enough times this evening. If I get the feeling you’re about to do it again, I’ll cut your trousers off and toss them into the sea. Then, you’ll have my freshly sharpened blade kissing your balls for the rest of our bumpy trip.”
They hit another tooth in the water, bouncing the boat across the wave and nearly tipping them over.
“Sorry,” Ellia murmured again.
The skin around the assassin’s testicles shriveled to the size of a grape. He muffled a protest from behind his gag, though it was too garbled to make out.
Reina sent a look to her husband, asking him if he was hitting this many rocks on purpose.
Ellia turned back to the shore. In the dim starlight she caught a figure pacing back and forth along a low point in the cliff. Even from fifty yards away she could see a striking resemblance to the man rowing the boat. “I see him.”
“Good,” said Reina. “How is he?”
“If I said he looks exactly like Lazden …”
“He has more hair,” said Lazden. “But, you know, give it time.”
Losten Dadario hurried to the gravel beachfront with a tight grip on his musket. As soon as the rowboat bumped its way onto the shore he grabbed on and pulled it inland as far as he could manage. Just behind him sat a merchant on a cushion, smoking his pipe, loosely minding a pair of horses and a cart.
“What the hell kind of time do you call this?” asked Losten.
Lazden dropped the oars with a thunk to the floor of the boat. “We had some delays.”
“Delays, yeah. Do you hear that? That is the sound of birds chirping. The sun’s almost up.”
Lazden craned his whole body around to face his son. “Do you really think you’ve had a worse evening than we have?”
Losten thought long and hard for an answer, yet nothing suitable came to him. He turned his attention to the gagged and manacled prisoner lying in the back. “Do you need a hand?”
“I’d love one.” Lazden climbed out of the boat, lifted the assassin to his knees, and together they dragged him across the rocky ground, their boots crunching against the pebbles and sand. Just as the prisoner found his footing, Lazden released his grip, dropping the man to the ground near the horses and cart. The merchant rose, picked up his cushion, and crept forward.
Lazden turned the prisoner onto his back so he could face his accuser. “Is this him?”
“Yes,” mumbled the merchant.
The prisoner hurled one abuse after the other from behind his gag. Lazden loosened the knot behind the prisoner’s head. All at once the twisted piece of fabric broke free, allowing the assassin to groan and flex his jaw in relief. The prisoner spluttered back at Lazden. “You damn near broke my ribs when I was already manacled!”
“The key part of what you just said is ‘near’. Luckily for you, these two can have you in front of a doctor in a few hours.”
Losten glanced back at his father. “‘These two’?”
Reina dumped a small bag on the ground just out of reach of the prisoner. “Lazden’s heading back into Eresdel.”
Reina pointed to their prisoner. “He said a lot of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. There might be others who like to run around trying to kill people.”
“I am a merchant, not a murderer! I’ve never even been to Moqara before!”
“And yet we have proof,” said Lazden.
Reina turned to the merchant. “You definitely saw this man here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the merchant. “Saw him jump from the second story window to the ground. There was shouting coming from behind him. I saw the tall man with the black beard wave his sword through the window, then he went back inside and came running out the front door, completely naked. Asked me where this guy went, chased after him when I told him.”
“Was this man here carrying anything?”
“Yes, ma’am. A spear.”
“How long was it?”
“Short. All up, maybe four feet long.”
Reina went back to the rowboat and pulled out a short spear, its blade sheathed in brown leather.
“Yeah, that’s it,” said the merchant.
Reina smiled warmly in return. “Thank you, Carlen. I hope we haven’t kept you waiting too long.”
The merchant bowed awkwardly and returned to the cart.
The assassin glared back at Lazden. “This is kidnapping!”
“No kidding. If I rustle up some ink and paper do you think you could write me a poet’s lament about all the suffering you’ve gone through after failing to kill the Captain of the Moqaran Prince’s Guard?”
The assassin glared at the insult.
“Last chance,” said Reina. “Who else are you working with?”
He squinted back at her, testing their resolve. “If I tell you, will you let me go?”
“No. But I will argue tooth and nail to get you a trial. That will at least give you the chance to prove that someone else tried to kill the captain, not you.”
The assassin grunted as he stared upwards. “Having thought it over, I think I’d rather see you go fuck yourself.” A grin formed as he glanced to Losten. “Your son as well.”
All around them the world exhaled into a staccato silence. Losten wasn’t sure why, but the assassin’s smile caused his hackles to rise. Lazden lowered his boot to the ground half an inch to the side of the prisoner’s face, his heel grazing the man’s ear. The fire behind the lieutenant’s eyes burned between them, suffocating the captive. What had just been a wry smile was now nowhere to be seen.
Reina fitted the gag back around his mouth, stood, and dusted herself off. “Take him away.”
Lazden and Losten lifted the assassin up again, dumped him in the back of the cart, and locked him in place. As they walked back to the shore, Losten peered at his father, searching him for an answer. “So … why did it look like you were just about to kill him?”
Lazden paused so only Losten could hear. “When we caught him he said that unless we released him immediately, his people would kill me, you, and they would make your mother watch while they did it.”
“Isn’t that the same kind of threat you hear from everyone?”
“He knew your name.”
A chill fell over Losten, numbing him to the bone. “Really?”
“Yeah. Just as the midnight bell rang through the city we heard, ‘he’s as good as dead.’ That was about you.”
Losten glanced back at the prisoner. It now seemed like a downright miracle that he had been brought to Moqara with only a few bruised ribs to complain about.
“So, look, I need you to stick by your mother’s side for a while.”
“What? No, we’ve got him locked in a cart. If you’re looking for more assassins in Eresdel then I should come with you.”
Lazden shook his head. “I’m chasing loose ends that hopefully won’t amount to anything, and in case he finds a way to escape I need you to bring him down. Okay?”
Losten stared back at the rowboat and groaned.
Reina was busy thanking Ellia for all her help. “Yeah, fine, be Mom’s bodyguard while still not earning any hours on assignment.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to be a part of the fallout from Tarin when he finds out I’ve stayed behind. I expect he’s still in the worst mood of his life …?”
“Then I need you to do me a favor: stay in your mother’s sight at all times.” Before Losten could protest, Lazden added: “The guy we caught this evening snuck into Moqara to kill a senior member of the Prince’s Guard. And, he knew your name in particular. I want you two to find out why, okay?”
“Good.” Lazden crunched against the gravel back to the shore. He threw his arms around Reina, pushed the rowboat back into the water, and climbed inside. Losten sighed as his father left once again.
“Is he dead?” Tarin asked, reeking of coffee, tobacco, and morning breath.
“No, sir,” said Reina. “We’ve locked him in the dungeons, ready to see a judge.”
Tarin’s glare shifted into a storm that chilled the entire room. “You two are already days overdue and you’ve come back only to burden us with a trial?”
All around them, a hundred guests and dignitaries had gathered in the palace ballroom, celebrating the youngest prince’s birthday and his imminent wedding to one of the wealthiest daughters in the land. Reina counted three princes, eight cabinet members, and four heads of the wealthiest families in the region. Finding out from the desk clerk at the Guard House that the captain was in the thick of society’s elite had turned her boots to lead. When she last saw him, he had at least been under the influence of Halsi’s medication. It wasn’t until she saw Tarin glaring at her from across the room that she realized none of her arguments while in Eresdel would work on him.
The captain’s left arm was still in a sling from the attack, drawing ever more attention to the embarrassment of charging after a would-be assassin, as naked as the day he was born, only to slip and crash into a market stall. He had never shied from a public lashing before, but this one – surrounded by their betters and subordinates alike – would sting like no other.
Tarin drew in a deep breath, fueling the storm for another round. Reina jumped in before he could find his tongue. “Sir, the assassin threatened retribution from others, claimed that he’s in a group of hired swords. If it was the group who were paid and not just him, then you’re still in danger.”
Tarin held his anger level, though with it came a hint of caution in his eyes. “Where’s Lazden?”
“Still in Eresdel, following up on some leads.”
Then it came, the roar that would end her career. “On whose authorization?”
People turned. Stared. Every word Reina wanted to say started to tangle together as three princes looked her way. “Mine, sir.”
“Has the assassin given you even a single name of anyone he’s connected to?”
“Then your husband has no further business in Eresdel! Get him back to his post today!”
The closest guests shuffled away, leaving Reina even more exposed to Tarin’s wrath. “Sir, we were still on a foreign assignment when I gave the order.”
“Stop fucking around with a technicality, Dadario. Your orders were to capture the man who tried to kill me, not to chase after every asshole he points at in Eresdel. I want Lazden back today.”
The palace’s chief of staff, Adahr, sauntered over with a pair of wine glasses, pushing one into Tarin’s hand. “Reina! You’re back in one piece. Good, good.” He turned, breathing an excess of wine across Tarin’s face. “Captain, how’s the arm? I’m sorry for not saying good morning sooner, but I’ve been swamped with meetings and greetings.”
Tarin dropped to a more suitable volume, though the gravel in his voice remained. “You did say ‘good morning’, actually.”
“Oh? Well then, cheers!” Adahr clinked his glass against Tarin’s, allowing another waft of wine to drift into the captain’s face. Adahr turned to Reina. “Lieutenant, may I steal you for a moment?”
“She has orders to carry out,” said Tarin.
“Yes, yes, but this comes from the Prince and he is desperate to hear from her. It is his birthday, after all.” Adahr led Reina away before Tarin could refuse.
“Thank you,” whispered Reina.
“Not a problem,” said Adahr, as he sobered up remarkably quickly. “How are you?”
“Exhausted, to be honest.” Four days in Eresdel with barely any sleep had caught up to her during the ride back home, though she refused to give the assassin any chance to catch her falling asleep. The prospect of now spending the rest of the day hurrying to Eresdel and back again seemed as tortuous as they came.
Adahr stopped them in the middle of the ballroom. To the far end were the three most senior members of the state; Prince Akson and his two sons: Prince Regent Andraz and Prince Yoril. Beside Yoril was his wife-to-be, Illara den Mareaux. She sat with her shoulders held tightly together as Yoril struggled to find any story of his that would impress his future wife. Her father, Resten den Mareaux, was busy talking Andraz’s ear off as the early drinking had loosened his tongue considerably. Illara’s younger brother, Illios, stood alone along a far wall, holding a cup of wine to his lips while casting a steely glare at Andraz, who made no effort to hide his boredom at listening to the regalements of the head of the den Mareaux family. Next to Yoril and behind a long, ornate dining table, sat the Prince Akson, seated rigidly still and fighting a persistent tremor in his head.
Adahr turned to Reina. “I’ll assume that since I haven’t been dragged away on some life or death matter the moment you came in that you were successful in Eresdel?”
“Mostly,” said Reina. “The assassin seems to have accomplices.”
“Hmm. So we won’t be expecting Lazden back for a while.”
“I’m not sure. The captain–”
“The captain hasn’t left the palace in a week. You should see him here, swallowing as much anger as he can and remaining as foul as a camel’s ass in summer. The rest of us have at least enjoyed some intoxication of youth, combined with the upcoming wedding.” He glanced around the nearby faces to make sure it was safe enough to talk. “I’ve heard you’re unhappy at the Guard.” Looking over her ashen face as she struggled to find an explanation, Adahr gave Reina a simple nod. “I’ll assume that’s a ‘yes’. Perhaps some news will tempt some excitement back into you; news that not even the captain is aware of yet.”
The surge of energy rippled across her skin as curiosity started to get the better of her. “What’s happened?”
“We’ve received a formal offer from Duke Benir. After their wedding, Prince Yoril and Princess Illara are invited to live in Tryste. They will naturally need Moqaran protection. You headed Yoril’s detail while he was schooled there. You know the area. You know the people.”
The jolt from the shock spread to her cheeks, burning them like the scorched wilderness in the surrounding desert. “The Prince is leaving Moqara?”
“For a time, yes. There was considerable arm twisting from Mr. den Mareaux to make this happen. His uncle, Benjamin, is quite friendly with the Duke. Illara would return home, Yoril would be familiar enough with the area, you’ll be out of Tarin’s hair for a while, and …” Adahr searched for whoever might be listening in, “… it will give Andraz the chance to not see Illara for a while.”
Prince Akson slammed his fist on the table, knocking over his cup of wine and grumbling incoherently. The room fell quiet, watching the monarch as drool ran down his chin. Yoril leaned across, wiped him clean and calmed his father’s nerves as best he could. Illara, finding herself once again in sight of a hundred people studying her every move, smiled automatically and glanced to her father for help. As soon as he was done, Yoril returned to Illara’s side and carried on with one of the few stories he had memorized in a continued bid to make this arrangement as bearable as possible.
Reina’s gaze lingered on the pair for a moment, studying Yoril as she considered his relief at leaving his tempered father behind. To the side of the room, Andraz kept his attention on the engaged couple, silent, while Illara’s father chortled with laughter as he regaled Andraz with one delightful tale after the other. Elsewhere, Illios den Mareaux remained locked onto Andraz, glaring at him from behind his cup of wine.
Reina glanced back to Adahr. “How did Prince Akson take the news?”
“It’s still a little fresh, I admit,” said Adahr. “I hoped he would’ve remembered the first few times when we discussed the possibility of the Prince going overseas, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Yoril has had to spend the last couple of days assuring his father that he won’t be leaving today, or tomorrow, and that there is still a month to go before the wedding. So, here’s fair warning: one of the princes might be asking for you to head Yoril’s protection detail again. And they might be asking it soon.”
Her boots had turned to lead again. “How long do I have?”
“In all likelihood, you will have said ‘yes’ by lunch time.”
A hefty weight plummeted through Reina’s stomach. “Today?”
“I had hoped on seeing Lazden beside you. When’s he due back?”
“I’ve given him two more days in Eresdel,” said Reina.
“Then you might need to make this decision without him.”
The weight twisted through Reina’s stomach, pulling it into a knot.
“And, of course, Tarin knows nothing of this,” said Adahr.
“What? No. He has final say over postings of this magnitude.”
Adahr raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Because I thought Andraz has final say.”
“In consultation with the Captain of the Guard. And while the Prince could force his hand to name anyone he wants as the head of the detail, that’s it. Tarin is in his right to keep Lazden and Losten behind. Losten certainly, he’s only just become a lance corporal. Tarin would never let me bring Lazden and Losten to Tryste.”
Adahr’s eyelids fell to an unimpressed half-moon. “Reina? One day you might realize that the world does not revolve around Tarin’s ego.”
“I know, but his word will be final on this.”
Adahr shook his head softly. “Forgive me for knowing the answer ahead of time, but has your son ever asked for a puppy?”
Reina held her tongue, unsure of the tangent Adahr had taken them on. “Yes.”
“When he first asked, did you say no?”
“Did you get one anyway?”
Reina sighed with a nod. “Yeah.”
A wry smile spread across the side of Adahr’s face. “And did he manage to win you over with his incredible powers of persuasion despite being a child, or did he get his way because he wouldn’t shut up about it?” He paused, watching Reina start to see the possibility of a new life across the sea. The way she smiled brought a warmth to his masterful planning and engineering. “Perhaps it is a good idea to get Lazden back here as soon as you can.” Another booming laugh filled the room, causing Adahr to wince. “And if I’m not mistaken, that’s my cue to rescue Andraz from any more of Resten’s meanderings.” He peered into his empty glass of wine. “One day I might actually be able to drink one of these for pleasure.” He turned, grabbed a pair of glasses from a waiter, and drunkenly warbled over to Resten and the Prince.
Reina remained in the middle of the ballroom, staring at the life ahead of her. Tryste, of all places. The first few years of watching over Yoril had kept her away from Lazden and her son, a torture she had barely survived.
She looked to Illara den Mareaux, still unable to figure out the young lady. Did she know yet of the Duke’s offer? Her father must have told her, surely. So was she hiding her delight at returning home? Or was it now inevitable that her only chance of happiness would come from having to marry the youngest of Akson’s sons?
A shadow crept into her vision. Reina turned, jumping at Tarin as he loomed over her. His sneer had yet to leave him. “Unless Adahr has any more pointless delays for you, how about you follow an explicit order? Get Lazden back here today. By sundown I want you both in your best uniforms and explaining to me why you shouldn’t be digging trenches for the rest of your lives, because you two have really overstepped your bounds with my authorization.”
The golden shores of Tryste called to her. “I did it to save your life.”
Akson bellowed again from the end of the room, blubbering in confusion at the hour of the day. He hadn’t been up for long, yet everyone around him was drinking and dining like it was well into the evening.
Yoril was frozen still. Reina glanced from him to Akson, then to Andraz across the room. Andraz had shifted, ignoring the murmurs from the guests as his focus lay acutely upon his father.
Tarin growled back at Reina. “I saved my own life by chasing the would-be assassin out of my house. Get your husband back now.”
Something about the young prince called to her. A cry for help. Even after the well-wishers returned to talking amongst themselves Yoril shrank away. But he didn’t return to his story with Illara.
Akson slammed his fist on the table, catapulting the cutlery into the air. All heads turned again, the room falling to another hushed silence. The doctor, Halsi, fumbled in his pockets for a bottle of the Prince’s medicine.
Reina narrowed her eyes on the royal table and crept forward.
“Now, Dadario,” growled Tarin.
Reina side-stepped him, focused on Akson as he sat in a seething rage. “Your Highness?”
Tarin snapped a hand out, grabbing Reina by the elbow. “Lieutenant!”
Akson turned, his face flushed like wine as he stared down his cowering son.
The world around Reina rushed into a head-long burst of fright and panic. The spluttering lurch of it’s happening shot through her chest. She yanked her arm away from Tarin and ran towards the Prince.
Akson pushed himself out of his chair, roaring in unbridled anger. His fist had the force of a battering ram as he slammed it into his son’s face. Shrieks and gasps ricocheted through the ballroom as Yoril was sent sprawling to the floor in a daze.
“FATHER!” Andraz dropped his wine glass and sprinted in.
Reina dodged the guests as they scrambled in and out of each other’s way. “MOVE!” She lost sight of Akson among the crowd. The Prince dropped down, his back rising from behind the table, his shoulders jostling back and forth as he choked his own son like a ragdoll.
Akson had his hands digging into Yoril’s throat, his grip so tight the tips of his thumbs were buried below the boy’s skin. Yoril fought back, slapping at his father’s wrists, then at his face, pushing with all the stunned strength he could manage as his father strangled the life out of him.
Reina crashed into Akson, clotheslining him around his shoulders, but the hulking Prince was twice her weight. Akson swung his fist through the air, connecting with Reina square in the face, knocking her back and throwing her to the floor.
Akson swung again, this time into Andraz as he charged in. Andraz tumbled into the chairs and dining table, breaking his stride and crashing to the ground. Akson lifted Yoril’s body into the air and slammed it onto the dining table. The elder Prince heaved, his face bursting with primal madness, his shoulders shaking as he prepared for the next fight of his life.
Yoril’s hand flopped to the side. Illara remained frozen, three feet from her husband-to-be and utterly stuck to her chair.
No one dared to move. Few could even breathe.
Tarin’s command echoed through the room. “Everyone out.”
Reina climbed back to her feet, her head spinning and her vision refusing to settle down. Half of her face stung like it had been paralyzed with ice, leaving the other half burning with fire.
There came a shift in Akson’s eyes, one where the vilest of threats to his life became the face of his own son. Then, slowly, his senses started to return.
Just that morning he had laughed with Yoril on his birthday. He had hugged him warmly with his beautiful bride, embracing them both like Illara couldn’t have been happier.
Now Yoril wasn’t moving.
“Everyone out!” shouted Tarin.
Akson nudged his son’s chest, desperate for him to move. But the boy lay dead, face up in his own home. Andraz rose to his hands and knees, watching the life slip away from his brother’s eyes.
The mindless rage within Akson disappeared. In its place was the longing of a voiceless man trying to convince his son to move just one more time. His groan gave way to a sob, the sob turned to a howl. The Prince of Moqara collapsed to one side, falling in a heap against Yoril’s chair. He screamed for help, pleading with anything and everyone to save his son. No one came.