Imogen leaned forward. “So our plan for Belland is not to greet a brother, but to stop an imposter.” She pointed at the notebook. “I’m curious. What did Strick write about Darius?”
I shrugged and opened to that page. “As I said, there isn’t much: his date of birth and my father’s name, and his current description, all of which could be learned by one glance at his portrait and a few questions to any passing Carthyan.”
“That, I believe, is where the facts end. The rest is a fine story of fiction. Most of it is the way Darius got to Belland in the first place. Strick refers to Conner only as ‘the conspirator.’ She claims that he wanted the older son left alive to protect the second lens. But she doesn’t give any explanation for how or why he would have it.”
Mott shook his head. “Conner never mentioned the scope or any lens. I certainly didn’t know everything he was doing, but I’m sure I would have known about that.”
Imogen pressed her lips together, then said, “Wait here.” She darted out of the room and went belowdecks, then returned less than a minute later with the shoulder bag I’d had on board the Red Serpent.
“I rescued this on the night of the attack as well, thinking something important might be in it. You can imagine my disappointment when I only found Conner’s old journal. But I’ve been going through it myself today. He wrote about everything — his opinion of the way your father ruled the kingdom, his plans for a false prince, and how he believed he would one day rule Carthya. But never once does he mention the scope, Darius, or anything that might have involved him.”
Mott said, “If that is true, then there should be no reason to believe your brother is alive.”
“Agreed,” I said. There certainly was no reason to believe it, yet deep in my gut, I knew things would not be so simple once we reached Belland. They never were.
Hours later, everyone on board had gathered to the deck, passing the long afternoon with various activities. Mott was at the helm. Tobias was reorganizing the few medical supplies he still had. Westler was teaching Fink to fish, though they had yet to catch anything large enough to eat. Imogen and Wilta sat together studying Conner’s journal and comparing it with Strick’s notebook. After so much time poring over the journals together, they seemed to be forming a tentative friendship.
I sat alone, staring out across the sea, thinking of Darius and how desperately I missed him, in some ways more than my parents because we used to be so close. It worried me that I might miss him so much, I would let that desire to have him back again taint my opinion of whether this person I would meet on Belland was really him.
I worried just as much that it might truly be him. Imogen’s words from the previous night still echoed in my ears, that Darius had not saved me when he’d had the chance. It was true; he had sat beside my father in the fine carriages that drove right past me as I stood on the street to watch them. I wanted to believe he had never seen me. But deep inside, I knew he had.
“Land!” Fink cried.
I leapt to my feet and joined him at the bow. There was land ahead, though at this distance, we couldn’t see many details.
“Is it Belland?” Tobias asked Wilta.
She stood and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “I think so. But we’re still far away.”
Within another hour, Wilta confirmed that this was Belland. She explained that the country existed on a narrow neck of land jutting out from the mainland and was cut off from other countries by the volcano that had once formed Belland. Steep, tree-lined slopes descended from the volcano, then gave way to lower hills, which flattened into a pebble beach with larger rocks dotting the area. We saw five large ships with Prozarian flags docked at a harbor where the greatest concentration of the population likely was. We approached from the south, where there were no Prozarian ships, nor any signs of life.
Tobias stood at the bow of the deck and stared toward the land. “How long until we arrive?”
Mott held up a hand to the wind. “It’ll be a few more hours, if the breeze remains steady. I want to stay to the south and hope we’re not noticed.”
Despite all the excitement of seeing land, Imogen had continued studying the journals. She looked up only long enough to observe, “The interior of the country looks too dense for travel. If our movements must be kept to the beaches, we’ll find it difficult to go anywhere without being noticed.”
Wilta turned to her. “There are trails everywhere, connecting the beaches to the hills and even to the peak of the volcano. I can show you the most secret ways to get where you want to go.”
“Will it be safe for you?” Imogen asked. “If you’re found by the Prozarians, what will happen?”
Wilta’s hands began to tremble. “I’ll have to face them sooner or later. I won’t remain in hiding here while my people are in so much danger.”
“We’re going to the Prozarians?” Until then, I had thought Westler was napping, but his head shot up so rapidly, I wondered if he had momentarily died and his spirit had suddenly flown back into his body. Westler dropped his fishing pole on the deck and wandered back to the navigation. “I thought they all died from the plague.”
Mott joined him and gently took control of the wheel.
“We’re going to Belland, remember?”
“I agreed to take you there, but I will not remain anywhere that is infested with Prozarians.” He shook his head. “And if the lot of you have more than feathers for brains, you will reconsider your plans.”
“You’ve encountered them before?” Tobias asked.
He shuddered with the memory. “Almost twenty years ago. I fled to the sea and haven’t returned home since. From what I hear, my former home is nothing but a wasteland now. Back then, the Prozarians were conquerors. They’d consume every resource in a territory, then move on. If the Prozarians have returned, nowhere is safe.”