“Nor does our monarch, but that has never been important. My people believe that the throne is for the person who takes it, not for the person with the chosen bloodline.”
Even from here I saw Roden’s eyes brighten. The hardest part was that I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to impress Strick, or whether he truly believed what she was saying to him.
“You said there was a way Roden could prove his loyalty?” Wilta asked.
Strick’s answer was ready. “It’s quite simple. I want Jaron on his knees to me.”
Roden drew back. “Captain, he won’t … he never —”
“He will, or he must die. But I want you to make him do it.”
“I cannot control him. No one can.”
Strick gestured for Wilta to come forward. “Tell Roden why you are here.”
Wilta gulped and lowered her head. “Above all others of my people, I was the most defiant. The common belief was that I could never be broken, never be brought into submission. After an attempted rebellion against the Prozarians, I was captured and sentenced to a lifetime of service. But it is no longer a punishment. I have earned her trust, Roden, and I want to serve the captain. Jaron will feel the same way, in time.”
“Once I break the leaders, I command their people.” Strick put a pensive finger to her lips. “I simply need to understand Jaron better. Tell me something useful about him and I will reward you. Refuse, and I will have you beaten until the right words are forced out of you.”
Roden’s voice wavered. “There is something I can tell you. Jaron is good at hiding his fears, but I promise you, he is afraid, and probably has no idea what he is supposed to do. So even if he does not show it, he is highly vulnerable right now.”
I cursed under my breath. Roden was mistaken. Right now, I was far more irritated than afraid.
Strick smiled. “Thank you, Roden. As a reward, you will no longer be locked in your room. But be warned, my people will be watching you at all times. You are dismissed.”
In acknowledgment, he dipped his head, and she turned to go back into her quarters. Before she did, she paused and said to him, “I must admit that I am surprised.”
“For someone who was once the captain of the guard in Carthya, you are surprisingly weak. I knew Jaron wouldn’t cooperate, but in truth, I expected you would be far more difficult to defeat.”
Roden was standing close enough for me to see the hunch of his shoulders. Strick’s comment would have stung him deeper than she might have known. Or maybe she did know. She returned to her office, chuckling softly.
Sensing the change in his emotions, Wilta pushed her arm through his. “Don’t listen to her. She gave you no choice but to tell her something, and I expect you could have revealed far more damaging information.”
“Definitely. Jaron is very —”
“Don’t say it.” Wilta looked back toward the captain’s quarters. “I don’t want to know anything that she might force me to tell her.”
“So you don’t serve her by choice?”
Wilta shook her head, then looked up to the crow’s nest. “I know that Jaron will be the same way. But if you can’t get him on his knees to her, he will never reach Belland.”
Roden pushed a hand through his hair. “And what happens if he is taken to Belland?”
“That depends on him … and you.” Wilta took Roden’s hand in hers. “Jaron needs you now, whether he knows it or not. But you can do nothing for him until the captain trusts you. Believe me, I learned that lesson in the hardest possible way. I lost everyone….”
That was as far as she got before she drew in a sharp breath, as though holding back tears. Using the lantern light, Roden looked closer at her arm, brushing a finger up the skin. “These scars, did the captain do that to you?”
“It’s proof of the cruelty of the Monarch.” She paused to collect her emotions. “These people took everything from me, everyone I ever loved. I only stay now so that I can take back from them all that is rightfully mine.”
As her emotions broke, Roden pulled her into an embrace. At the same time, Tobias hurled one of my boots over the side of the crow’s nest. In a surprisingly good aim, it nearly hit Roden, who had to push away from Wilta to avoid it.
He chuckled, though it sounded forced and tense. “Jaron holds grudges. It’s not a big problem.”
Yes, I did. And if he continued to pour out my secrets to Wilta, he should consider it a major problem.
Wilta led Roden over to the rail to look up at the crow’s nest. “He seems angry with you.”