The Captive Kingdom (Ascendance 4) - Page 56


The path took a sharp incline, which led to the top of a ridge. From here, we had a fine view of the village below, framed in moonlight and lit with torches and lanterns. The village was connected to the beach by a series of gravel paths, dotted with around fifty simple wood homes and open-a

ir markets. Despite the late hour, the paths between them were filled with people in a bustle of activity as the Shadow Tide began to dock at the far end of five ships of similar size and with the same Prozarian flag on display.

Imogen suggested that if we continued along the path, it would lead us down to the beach. We followed that way, but veered off the path when we got lower, keeping to the dense patches of trees and underbrush, places where we hoped we would not readily be seen.

Although we were still some distance from the beach, we eventually reached a final patch of trees thick enough to hide us. Beyond here, the trees thinned, then disappeared into clumps of tall grasses, then even those gave way to pebbles and sand. This was as close as we dared get.

We kept tightly to the darkest places, taking advantage of the fact that those around us were so busy, no one took notice of our shadows.

The beach was bustling with activity as the Bellanders delivered various goods to Prozarian vigils standing at posts along the beach. The Prozarians were easily recognizable by their brimmed hats and long coats in the same green-and-white colors as their flags. Those who weren’t taking collections wandered among the Bellanders, whips in their hands, shouting orders and making threats.

The people themselves wore long, simple tunics, some belted with twine or strips of fabric. The men had close-cropped hair and the women banded their long hair down their backs. They seemed to outnumber the Prozarians by several times over, but rather than show any signs of resistance, they continued with their work, bringing food and quilts and weapons to the proper vigils. As they worked, they all seemed to be singing a common tune, one of mourning or defeat. No one sang loudly, but their combined voices created an almost haunted feeling.

“Faster!” a Prozarian shouted, raising a strap against an older man. I started forward to intervene, but Mott pulled me back, reminding me of our purpose in having come this far.

At first I was so angry with that Prozarian, I didn’t notice Darius and Trea walking right past us, not until they were so close I could have reached out and touched them. They didn’t seem to see us this time, but each of us froze in place.

“What will I say to the captain?” Darius was asking. “She will ask.”

Trea licked her lips. “Let her do the talking, as much as possible. The less you say, the better. Remember how many lives depend on this going well.”

Indeed, within minutes of the Shadow Tide docking, a gangplank was lowered to the docks. Darius and Trea stepped forward to welcome the ship, though Darius was rocking on his heels, a nervous habit I thought our father had long ago weeded out of him. Captain Strick emerged first, escorted by two of her crewmen.

“They look miserable,” I whispered. “As if escorting her is a punishment.”

“They must’ve done something awful to deserve this,” Imogen agreed.

I turned to look at Mott, who had not answered. I’d been so caught up in studying the area and events around me that I’d failed to notice Mott’s shallow breaths and nervous fingers. Never before, in all our time together, had I ever seen him like this.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Hush.”

“You look like you’re about to pass out. If you are, I should know.”

“Hush, Jaron!”

I followed his gaze forward to Trea, who was standing in our direct line of sight, then looked back at Mott, who wasn’t blinking, perhaps out of fear that he might miss that fraction of a second to stare at her.

“You can’t be serious,” I whispered, but if he heard me, he ignored it.

Nor did he need to answer. I understood the expression on his face far too well. Mott had withheld from me a far bigger secret than I had suspected. He didn’t only know Trea. He was in love with her. The kind of love that might have made him forget how dangerous this moment was, how quickly a wrong move could get us caught once again within Strick’s snares.

In his will, Conner had asked for a portion of his inheritance to go to Mott, as an apology. Maybe Conner was the reason that Trea left. Mott may not have even known what happened to her until this very moment.

Imogen met my eyes, and I knew she recognized Mott’s expression too. Except I could not smile the same way she was, because this greatly complicated our problems. Until I knew more about Trea, I would not trust that Darius was safe with her.

Which meant she was a risk to me.

And based on the way Mott continued to stare at her, I understood that Mott had just become a risk to me too.

By the time Captain Strick reached the shore, all Bellanders were on their knees, many of them kneeling only after being threatened by a Prozarian. Even Darius knelt, which left me shaking my head in disgust. Did he not remember who he was, what he was?

The rest of the captain’s crew members were beginning to leave the ship too, all of them with weapons visible. So far, no pirates had left.

Finally, at Trea’s prompting, Darius stood and called out, “Hail, Captain Strick. Prozarians and Bellanders alike, give her your welcome!”

The Prozarians offered salutes of honor, but the Bellanders did not. Instead, they extended their arms straight down, hands in fists. All of them.


Tags: Jennifer A. Nielsen Ascendance Fantasy
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