The Captive Kingdom (Ascendance 4) - Page 73

Lump advanced, his eyes increasingly narrowing with each step he took. “Give those to me.”

“Where would be the fun in that?” Instead, I hurled the keys through the bars into the opposite corner of the room from where Imogen was hiding. He darted for them and I pushed open the cell door, which I’d kept unlocked, and raced for the stairs.

Lump doubled back to chase me, but I scaled the steps in half the time he did, exited the prison room door … and crashed straight into Mercy. Only this time, without intending to. He grabbed one arm and I used the other to get in a punch to his gut. That forced him to release me, but I’d no sooner done that than Lump emerged and wrestled me down from behind.

“You’ll pay for that,” Mercy said, still half-doubled over.

“Give him to me.” Roden rounded a corner. “Now!”

Lump still landed a fist against my side before leaving me on the ground. Roden crouched in front of me and said, “What was the point in attempting an escape now? Wouldn’t you assume they had a dozen vigils up here waiting to escort you to the trial?”

I stared at him. “That’s exactly what I assumed.”

Now he took a slow breath. “I’ve been thinking about the trial. If you tell the captain where you’ve hidden the scope, you might be able to bargain for your life.”

“Let me speak to Darius.”

“They won’t let you do that, and from what I saw last night, that’s the worst thing you could do. But there is someone who wants to speak to you.”

Whoever it was, if they were brought here by the Prozarians, I had no desire to see them. “I’m busy.”

Roden stepped aside as Tobias came around the corner from the back of the prison house. His eyes were on me as if trying to communicate answers to the dozens of questions suddenly filling my head.

Roden seemed to know what Tobias was unable to say. “They found the camp. Tobias sent Fink in one direction and came down to the beach to meet the searchers, to delay them. Fink’s footprints disappeared once he crossed onto rock, but they know he was headed north, and they will pick up his trail again.”

Which meant they might also find Imogen, who would soon be on her way back to Fink.

I glanced at Tobias, who gave me a slight, almost imperceptible nod, answering the obvious next question. Aside from the scope and lens, Fink had all the items I had stolen from the captain’s office. That would be too much for him to carry.

“The Prozarians couldn’t follow a trail paved in gold,” I said. “They’re no threat to Fink.”

“This is serious!” Roden said. “Why is your only response to tell a joke?”

I lowered my eyes. I made jokes because I had long ago understood that when I did, people either laughed or became furious, and either way, it pulled them off course. I made jokes because the alternative was to scream as loudly on the outside as I was on the inside. Because I needed to laugh so that I wouldn’t burn with anger at the injustices around me.

“Belland is a small place. Strick will find what she’s looking for.” Roden’s eyes sharpened. “She will find Fink.”

My stomach knotted. “She didn’t find him on the Shadow Tide; she won’t find him here. Fink will slip through her fingers like smoke.”

I hoped.

Fink wasn’t much like smoke. He was more like that dog that always gets caught upon a single wire in the corner of an open field. I was a little surprised he hadn’t already been found.

“Fink will be fine, but can

you worry about yourself for a few minutes?” Tobias stepped closer to me. “This trial will only end one way. We have to negotiate with them.”

“My innocence is not up for negotiation.” I stuck out my jaw. “Take me to the trial.”

Roden led me out of the village and up the trail that took us directly past Darius’s home. Farther on, we came to a wide, grassy clearing with an easy view of the former volcano that had formed this land. Most of the clearing was so thick with onlookers that I wondered if guests had been brought in from neighboring countries. Surely the population of Belland, even with the Prozarian occupation, could not be so great. Even worse was that as I scanned the faces, none of them seemed friendly. The warnings I’d been given were true: I was already convicted.

I was brought to the center of the gathering and a chain was wrapped around each wrist, forcing me to hold my arms out wide, away from my body. The chain on my right arm was attached to a sturdy post in the ground, but the chain on my left was attached to a leg of a chair not far away, as if the need for a second chain had been a last-minute decision. Worse still, the chair was currently occupied by Mercy, who looked quite comfortable. The red-haired man I’d fought last night was here as well, glaring daggers at me. He and I were not finished with each other. Several other chairs were in a row beside them, slowly being filled with what I assumed were some of the higher-ranking Prozarians.

I whispered to Tobias, who stood at my side. “There’s a metal clip inside the lining of my belt. Get it out and put it in my left hand. Don’t let anyone see.”

“How am I supposed to … oh, all right, but it will be embarrassing.”

Loudly, Tobias said, “I just realized I might never see you again.” And he closed me into a tight embrace. I felt his fingers fold back the belt, and seconds later he pulled his hand away.

Tags: Jennifer A. Nielsen Ascendance Fantasy
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