“Are you servants now, her servants? Have you entirely forgotten who you are? Who I am?”
“You’re our king,” a few of them grumbled, with more than one adding, “For now.”
That was good enough for me. “As your king, I ask you to prove why Avenian pirates must be respected … if the fight is still in you.” I gestured toward the Prozarians, who were reaching again for their weapons. “I’d be especially appreciative if you’d prove yourselves now.”
With their pride now at stake, the pirates eagerly growled and crossed behind me to face the Prozarians while I ran in the opposite direction.
Ahead of me, the beach rapidly narrowed as a large outcropping of rock took its place. I recognized it immediately as the image on the first lens. The outcropping appeared to be made of the same lava rock as I’d seen elsewhere, and the hillside extending away from it was thick with trees and underbrush. I first ran toward the hillside, fully intending to get lost in it.
Yet with my eyes too much ahead, I tripped and fell flat on my face. When I looked back, spitting out small pebbles and sand, I saw a dead and fallen tree near me. My leg had become caught in one of the half-broken branches.
But perhaps the branch had done me a favor, for at this angle, I realized the hillside was far too steep. I wouldn’t get far on it.
I untangled my foot and stood again, this time running to the right of the outcropping, skirting the edge of the beach. As I began to pass it, I realized this was no outcropping, but instead was an enormous cave, its only entrance from the beach being exactly where I stood. I darted inside to find myself surrounded by tall rock walls, some quite rounded, but others going straight up to a large opening overhead.
Directly beneath the opening was a pit made of smooth black rock that descended deeper underground than I could see. It was probably a lava tube that had been created by the volcano that formed Belland, and might have gone endlessly underground.
Careful to avoid it, I stepped to the right so that if I fell, I wouldn’t be carried to the devils, or farther into the earth than I might ever escape. I brushed my hands against the wall until I found a solid beginning for my fingers, pressed my right foot into an indentation, and began to climb.
Despite the danger and the hurry and the protest in my injured leg, I couldn’t help but smile. This was the kind of wall I had dreamed of when I was beginning to climb. The rock was jagged enough to give me plenty of choices for a grip, but not so jagged that it threatened my balance. I was making good time and even wished the climb were longer so that I could truly test myself.
In no time, I crawled through the cave’s opening, made easier by a wooden arch that had been bolted into the rock itself. I wasn’t sure what its use might have been in the past, but for now, it made rolling onto the hilltop much easier.
And I did so just in time, for the voices below me easily carried upward.
“Where is he?”
Another Prozarian said, “He must’ve circled around back to the beach. You’d better hope we find him or we’ll be the next sacrifices.”
Once they were gone, I lay beside the cave opening to rest, staring up at the dark sky and slowly becoming aware of a great sound of running water. With the next break in the clouds, I sat up and in the moonlight saw a hearty waterfall running down from hills much higher up the mountain. I could also make out a wide channel near me where the water had once been a mighty river that ran through the cave opening, emptying directly into the sea.
But no longer. A wall of trees and rocks now held the water in, creating a deep pool. The excess water ran off in new channels away from the cliff, though it was far too dark to see where, nor did I much care.
Turning in the opposite direction, I found the hilltop provided an incredible view of the Eranbole Sea, almost black this late at night. I walked around the cave opening, closer to the edge of the overlook, and saw the beach below and a dozen shadows all searching for me.
But up here, I was alone. So I lay back in the grass with the intention of thinking over everything that had happened so far that night. Except this time when I did, I landed on top of the tin box that I had slung over my shoulder, forcing me to sit up again. My thoughts had been much more focused on the swords and on my escape, so that I had nearly forgotten about the box.
I had few hopes of it containing anything worth the trouble of carrying it all this way. It wasn’t much larger than a book, but far heavier. I walked into the line of trees and opened the tinderbox I’d swiped. The charcloth was wet, but I gathered a few dried leaves and twigs into a pile and used the flint and firesteel to create a small fire. Then I picked up a rock and hammered it against the lock. After only a few hits, the clasp broke apart, and I opened it with no idea of what I might find. But the captain had seen fit to lock it, so it had to contain something of value.
Except when I opened it, I quickly decided this was not the captain’s box, nor was it even Prozarian. When I angled it toward the fire to catch its light, I realized that, impossibly, this bore the Carthyan seal on the inner lid.
So whose was it?
My attention was first drawn to what had created the considerable weight of the box: rows of gold coins so tightly bundled in cloth they would not make a sound. I untied the first wrap and the coins that unfolded in my hand were also Carthyan, though they were older coins bearing the image of my grandfather. These hadn’t been issued since before I was born.
Beneath the coins was a folded note on fine parchment. The words of the letter were simple: My eternal gratitude for your gift. May this money help you find your own happiness.
I’d have barely paid attention to the note, especially as it was not signed, but it did not need to be. My heart was already racing, already twisting in my chest. This was my mother’s handwriting.
Scarcely able to breathe, I reached for the next item, a second note, this one much longer, and with handwriting I also recognized. This had come from Mott, and within the first few lines, I knew exactly what this was. Mott had written a love letter.
Which meant I knew whose box this was.
I knew it was a violation of Mott’s emotions and Trea’s privacy to read the letter, but if anything could help unravel the mystery surrounding my brother, I had to understand it. I skimmed wherever possible, until I reached the line, As soon as I can make arrangements to repay my debts to Master Conner, I will repay yours. Then I will propose marriage, and I hope you will agree.