“I have a million questions,” I said. “But I must know if Imogen is here with you.”
Without answering, Mott gestured to Wilta. “If you wish, my lady, I’ll take you to a place you can rest.”
She nodded at him but gave a smile to me. “Thank you, Jaron. You have the gratitude of all my people.”
“I haven’t done anything for them yet.”
“No, but if anyone can, it will be you.” She leaned forward and gave me a quick kiss on one cheek, then whispered in my ear. “And I promise, I will keep your secrets.”
When she pulled away, I heard footsteps hurrying up the ladder to the deck. I turned in eager anticipation, and suddenly, there stood Imogen, her eyes shifting from me back to Wilta.
cheeks and nose were bronzed from her time at sea, and the dress she had been wearing while on the Red Serpent was torn and stained. Her braided hair had come loose in places from the wind, and still, I didn’t think she had ever looked more beautiful.
I immediately crossed the boat, unaware of anyone who might have been between us. She began to scold me and I knew that eventually she would get her chance. But for now, I was beyond happy to see her. She was just beginning to say my name when I kissed her.
She returned the kiss, and when we parted, she seemed to have abandoned the idea of scolding me. Instead, she looked over our group and her face fell. “Where is Amarinda, and Roden?” she asked. “Why aren’t they here?”
All at once, everyone began to ask their questions, throwing them out so fast, no one had the chance to give any answers.
Finally, Westler raised his hands and said, “Enough!” When he had our attention, he said, “This is why no one gets anything done these days. Too much talking, not enough listening.” He looked around at us. “Now, which one of you is some sort of king?”
“Me,” I said.
He squinted and shifted his eyes from me to Tobias, the last to climb aboard. “Not him? He looks more like a king. You look like … a ruffian.”
“We’ll take things from here; thanks for your generosity, Westler,” Mott said, returning to the deck, his arms loaded with biscuits and dried meats. He glanced at the food, explaining, “We’re welcome to all we can eat, provided we make some needed repairs around here. He’s kept me busy for two days.”
“I have more work belowdecks.” Westler eyed me. “And if you’re good enough to rule a country, then you’re good enough to work my ship.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
Westler shrugged and returned to the helm while Mott led us all to the interior wardroom and laid out the food. I immediately stuffed one biscuit into my mouth and piled three more and an entire handful of meat in front of me, then addressed Mott and Imogen specifically. “Tell me how you both escaped.”
Imogen’s story was what I had expected. “The idea was to create something that would trick them, drawing their attention away from the Red Serpent. Then I wanted to destroy my own trick, so they would forgo any pursuit of the lifeboat. I was hiding beneath the blanket.” She eyed Fink. “You were supposed to be on the lifeboat with me. What happened to you?”
He shrugged. “I ended up somewhere else.”
Mott said, “I didn’t know how many of us had escaped the ship and who was still there, so I went down to the bottom of the ship and found a place to hide. When I heard the first order to fire, I knew that would be the end of me. But the ship broke apart, and I was somehow still alive. Once I surfaced, I held on to some wood wreckage until this fishing boat appeared a couple of hours later. Westler picked me up and then we found Imogen. Now we’re here, and it seems we came just in time. Only you could make an entire ship’s crew want to kill you after only one day.”
“It’s closer to two days.” I cocked my head. “And to be fair, it wasn’t the entire crew.”
“It nearly was,” Tobias put in. “I mean, there might’ve been a few who —”
“Stop talking, Tobias.” Mott turned back to me. “Shall we continue to follow the Shadow Tide?”
“No, they’re headed in the wrong direction.”
“The wrong direction for what?” Imogen asked.
“Belland. It’s a seaside country nearly another day west of here. That’s where Wilta comes from.”
Mott drew back. “Never heard of it. Never heard of her. Are you sure it was a good idea to bring her on board?”
“Whether it was or not, she’s here. Now, we need to get to Belland ahead of Captain Strick.”
“They’re already ahead of us, Jaron, and in a faster ship.”