“No, Monarch, they do not.”
I twisted enough to get a good grip on my rope, and while keeping the end of Wilta’s rope in my hands, I began to climb. It was more difficult than usual, since I had to climb with Wilta screaming at me from below. But that was to be expected, I supposed.
“Jaron, look — the sun!”
I paused as the sun must have descended into the angle they had been waiting for. From the opening above, warm light flooded the cave, brightening the walls, casting them in tints of deep orange and yellow.
I twisted around on my rope, looking everywhere along the walls for any sign of a third lens, but nothing appeared different than any other place.
“You must see something,” Wilta said, desperately scanning the walls as well. “Please, Jaron, the water is getting higher!”
Sure enough, when I looked down, her legs were already in the water, and the waves had begun stirring her around, which also pulled at my rope.
“You should probably climb higher,” I said, still looking around me.
“But the lens!”
“There, I see something!” I tried swinging toward the cave wall, but a wave grabbed Wilta and thrust her forward, carrying me with her and slamming my shoulder into a different wall. I tried to grab anything solid, but the water receded, pulling me off the wall and sucking Wilta down into its depths. When the next wave entered, I was ready. I angled my body forward so that when I crashed into the cave wall, I grabbed anything I could with both hands. The water pulled at me again, but this time, I kept my hold. From there, I moved sideways along the wall toward my target.
Below me, Wilta climbed higher, choking on water but desperately scanning the nearest wall to her. “The lens isn’t up that high,” she said.
“If you knew that for sure, you’d have found the lens by now.”
The next wave pulled Wilta’s grip away from her rope and she fell
underwater again. She surfaced long enough to cry for help, but I’d found what I was looking for and was midway through using the knife to pry out a square-shaped rock. It fit neatly into my hand and had every appearance of a carved box with a lid on it of the same size. The third lens would fit perfectly inside.
“You have it?” Wilta climbed higher on her rope again. “Let me see it.” Instead, I put the rock inside my bag and began to climb my own rope, but she called, “Wait!”
I stopped climbing and twisted around to see Wilta staring up at me. Something in her expression cut through the danger of this place and pierced my heart. I had already guessed at her true self, but nothing I had imagined about her, nothing I could imagine, came close to the realization that she was likely the most dangerous person I had ever known. Her words struck directly at my already wounded heart. “You’d better hope that I am not the Monarch. Because if I am, then once I have that treasure, I will bring you to your knees, begging for mercy, or for your own death. I know who you love most, who you share secrets with and who you don’t, and why. All I have to decide is where to begin. With a newfound brother? An adopted brother?” Her eyes narrowed. “Or do I begin with her?”
“You will not touch any of them.” I’d intended to sound threatening but failed. The truth was that she had rattled me more than I wished to admit.
“I know exactly how to hurt you, and I will, until your hurt becomes your destruction.” Her smile turned to ice. “I will do all of that, if I am the Monarch.”
I could not remain here any longer. Though my heart was pounding and a pit had formed in my gut, I gripped the rope, then used the knife to cut myself free. With the square rock safely in the bag at my side, I began climbing.
Once I climbed higher than the cave opening, Roden’s was the first face I saw, and it was nearly on fire with anger.
“You left her down there?”
I wound the rope around my body to hold my place. “Do you trust me, Roden?”
He glared back. “As much as you trust me.”
“Then do not pull her up. Wilta is the Monarch.”
From below, Wilta shouted, “That’s a lie. Please, Jaron, help me! The water is rising!”
“Wilta?” Strick peeked down, then quickly motioned to Lump, her voice rising in a panicked pitch. “Pull her out.”
“Wait.” Mercy’s eyes were fixed on the bag at my side. “You won’t let her drown. So give us the lens, and then we will save her.”
“Of course she won’t drown — I intend to win my wager. But I only win if I refuse to tell you whether I found the lens.” I withdrew the square rock from my bag and held it out over the opening. “I don’t care whether I save this or not; it’s only a rock to me. But you might feel differently. If you want to see what is inside, then let me go free. When you do, I will give this to you to find any treasure you can imagine. And if you want, you can pull your daughter up too.”
Strick blinked. “My daughter? Wilta?”
“Is it true what I heard about the Monarch, that she had her own father killed? Your husband? Maybe you don’t want her pulled from the cave after all. If you’re considering revenge —”