A bell rang from far below, drawing an immediate response from the children. “We have to go!” the girl said.
I stood up. “You all must swear not to say a word about this.”
The boy crinkled his nose. “We won’t say anything tonight. But if you’re just someone else who came here with lies, we will report you tomorrow.”
After they ran away, I brushed myself off and began to climb. My injured leg protested the work, but I’d certainly faced worse situations and scaled greater distances than this. In less than a minute, I rolled back onto the ledge, then hurried along the trail in the direction the girl had pointed.
A woman entered the path ahead of me and would have seen me had she not been turned away, speaking to someone else. I immediately ducked behind a tree and crouched low to better hide myself beneath a thicket of wide-leaf bushes.
“I think those children were the last to be up here,” the woman said to whomever was behind her. “Should we keep looking?”
“The bell rang, so everyone should be headed down.” From that first spoken word of reply, my breath caught in my throat, locking in tighter until I scarcely could think. “We should go down ourselves, or we’ll be the ones in trouble.”
I recognized this voice. It was so familiar that I knew it down to my bones.
During the earliest years of my life, he had been my most constant companion. For most of those years, we had shared a room, because my parents felt someone needed to keep an eye on me. Later, in my final two years in the castle, our father had separated us in order to preserve Darius’s reputation. How I had hated that, and I often snuck into his room at night to sleep.
We were tutored together, took meals together, trained together in horsemanship, sword fighting, history, and languages. Even above those of my own parents, I would know the voice of my brother.
This was Darius.
The thought itself set my heart racing and turned my limbs to lead. How easy it had been to deny the truth about Darius when I was on the ship, when logic and reason muted my every instinct to trust in Strick’s words.
Darius was alive, and not a stone’s throw away from me now.
Of that I was certain. What I did not know was what to do about it.
“I thought I heard someone back there.” Darius took a step in my direction. “If everyone is not on the beach, you know the consequences.”
The woman said, “They only care if you are not there. The Prozarians don’t like it when you are away too long.”
“We’re cut off from the mainland, and they’ve taken control of our ships. Where could I possibly go?”
“I know that, but Captain Strick is expected to arrive tonight. She will want you there to greet the ship.”
His sigh was heavy. “I’m dreading her arrival, Trea.”
Her voice became even more tender and kind. “I was there at your birth, Darius, and have seen you in every kind of circumstance and challenge since. But never once in all your years have I seen you as anxious as you are today.”
For the first time, I took the risk of peeking around the tree, desperate to see him again. The woman — Trea — was blocking my view. She appeared to be somewhere in her thirties, and she was a beautiful woman. She was dressed in clothing much simpler than the fashions of Carthya. I did not know her.
Then she moved, and suddenly, there was Darius facing in my direction. I couldn’t believe my eyes, for he looked almost exactly as I remembered him from six years earlier. Older, certainly — Darius would be twenty now. But his hair was the same shade of brown, and his perfectly straight posture the same, just as Father had always required of him.
From somewhere in the distance, another bell rang. Trea immediately started forward. “The moment has come. She’s here.”
Trea took four steps down the trail before she looked back and stopped, realizing Darius wasn’t following.
Instead, his gaze had caught in the exact area where I now stood. The instant I realized it, I pulled back into the shadows, my heart pounding like a drum. He shouldn’t have been able to see me, not with only moonlight and a few stars.
But he had seen me, I knew it. I expected he would call my name, or at least draw Trea’s attention to the fact that someone had been watching him.
When Trea insisted that they needed to leave, he only picked up a bag near his feet and said to her, “Do you know why I’ve dreaded this day?”
“Because Jaron is supposed to be on that ship, and I don’t know which will be worse. Is it having to face Jaron, knowing what he’s done? Or will it be watching Jaron face what the Prozarians have planned for him?” Darius glanced in my direction again, and this time I could almost swear that our eyes met. “Either way, I sincerely hope that he never sets foot on this soil.”
“If he doesn’t come, you have no agreement with the Prozarians, and then what will we do?” Trea paused. “And what if she has come with him? Are you prepared for that?”