The Captive Kingdom (Ascendance 4) - Page 79

Lump swatted Roden across the mouth, knocking him to his back.

Strick laughed. “She has been helping Jaron.”

“So have I.” Roden stood again. “If this is a punishment, then use me instead.”

By then, I had reached the cave opening. I peeked down and quickly pulled back, feeling dizzy. Heights had never bothered me, but this was different. When I had entered this same cave last night, it was during low tide when there was only beach. But it was high tide now, and the entrance was entirely filled with water, in constant turbulence as it crashed against the cave walls.

Ignoring Roden, Strick stood across the opening from me. “I know your plan. If I sent you down alone, you would return, claiming to have found nothing, and later return to fetch the lens for yourself.”

I clicked my tongue. “That’s a terrible idea. Only a great fool would ever think of it.”

Strick missed my insult, which was disappointing. Instead, she continued, “Wilta is the guarantee that you will not trick us. In twelve minutes, the sun will fall to the exact position necessary to show where the third lens is hidden. In fifteen minutes, the tide will have risen inside the cave high enough to reach Wilta. If you have the lens by then, we will pull you both out alive. In thirty minutes, the tide will be high enough that any chance to recover the lens will be lost, and your lives will be lost with it. If anything happens to that lens — a scratch, a smear of dirt — both you and Wilta will pay the price for it.”

I arched a brow. “That’s rather dramatic, don’t you think? Why don’t you send Wilta down and leave me out of it?”

“What?” Wilta’s eyes widened almost more than I would have thought possible. “Jaron, this is no game.”

“Of course it is.” I looked over at Mercy. “Or am I wrong in thinking you were just exchanging wagers with a few people in the crowd?”

He shrugged. “Some of us believe you will find the third lens in there. Most of us think the two of you will die before either finds it.”

“And you honor your wagers, I assume.”

“Yes, always.”

“Put me down for us both escaping the cave without anyone knowing i

f I’ve found the third lens. That is my wager against the entire total that you collect from everyone else.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You cannot wager for yourself. Where would I get my money after you die?”

I looked at Roden. “He’ll pay it.”

Roden cursed under his breath. I figured I deserved at least that much.

“And what if you win?” Mercy asked.

“You help me rescue Amarinda.”

Mercy smiled at this new development. “There is only one way out of the cave, and that is back into our hands. You cannot win this wager.”

“That’s why the stakes are so high.”

“Very well.” Mercy recorded my wager in the book he carried, and no doubt he was pleased with the numbers he saw there.

Wilta’s hands were shaking when Lump led her closer to the opening, but her expression when she looked at me was sharper than a dagger.

One end of the red rope was tied around Wilta’s chest while tears streamed down her face. She folded her arms tightly around her middle, shaking her head and silently mumbling what might have been a prayer to the saints. I could almost guarantee that only the devils would listen.

Mercy led me to the opposite side of the opening, removed my jerkin — leaving me only in a white linen shirt — and tied the blue rope around my chest and beneath my arms, the same as had been done to Wilta. Both of our knots were fastened at the back, where we could not reach them.

I looked over at Strick. “Let’s be serious now about what matters most. What is Lump’s name?”

Mercy cinched the knot tighter. “That is not your concern. You are full of arrogance, witless humor, and flawed intelligence. No one will mourn if you do not survive.”

“Then I have nothing to lose.”

I turned around to see the gathered crowd, almost double the number of those who had been at the trial, since the pirates had been allowed here. The same Prozarians who had stood as vigils for my trial now created a barricade to ensure that nobody came too close to the arch. The former riverbed was empty other than Prozarians who stood between the groups, calling for any last-minute wagers.

Tags: Jennifer A. Nielsen Ascendance Fantasy
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