I hardly dared to ask the next question. “Did Mother ever … talk about me?”
We turned to see Roden behind us, flanked by two Prozarian vigils. He looked unnaturally stiff, and his eyes darted between me and Darius, as if he wasn’t sure who was in charge here. I wasn’t sure of that either.
Yet I was still reeling from what Darius had said, so he was the first to respond. “What do you want?”
“The Monarch would like to speak with you … both of you.” Roden shifted his weight. “Immediately.”
“Last night, the Monarch said she would take out her revenge on the people of Belland. It’s already begun. That’s how we knew where you were — she forced them to tell her about this place. She has already arrested several Bellanders suspected of violating their oaths of loyalty. She intends to burn their homes and destroy the resources of this land. When she finishes, nothing will remain of Belland.”
“The people here have nothing to do with this!” Darius snarled. “They are innocent!”
Roden’s face betrayed his worried emotions, though he was trying not to let the vigils see. “That is why the Monarch chose them.”
“Give us a moment to talk,” I said. Roden dipped his head and stepped back while Darius and I reentered the hut.
Once we were inside, I turned to Darius and whispered, “I have a plan, but it’s not ready yet. For now, we must stay here.”
He pushed his hand through his hair. “Your plan to save these people is to wait here while they take the punishment that should have been yours
. And after that?”
“When Imogen comes back …”
“She won’t. Not after the way she stormed out of here. Even if she does, we need to help the people now. You made promises to the Bellanders! You cannot give them hope and then abandon them. Why did you promise them freedom anyway? If anyone were to make that promise, it should have been me.”
He stopped there, almost reeling back at his own words. “It should have been me,” he mumbled again, this time to himself.
Darius looked up again. “Back home, I was separated from the people by castle walls, or I waved at them from a carriage as they stood at the sides of the road. But here, I work with these people, take meals with them, and learn from them every day, so much more than I ever learned from the castle tutors. These are my people, more than Carthyans have ever been.” He turned to me. “You gave them hope, Jaron. We must help them now.”
He was right. But to do so meant separating myself from a plan Imogen and I had discussed while on the fishing boat. If that plan failed, all else here was lost.
Darius grabbed his sword and sheathed it at his waist. “Will you join me or not?” I hesitated and he added, “Your king orders you to join him.”
“That is a trap down there. Trust me, I’ve walked into enough traps, I can usually recognize them.”
“That’s why I need you with me.” He grinned. “Protect the king.”
“With what? I have no sword.”
Now his smile vanished. “Where is it?”
“I dropped it into the sea.”
Darius closed his eyes and whispered something under his breath. I only caught the words “devils” and “cursed.” Whenever I heard those words together, they were almost always about me.
Finally, he said, “Well, I have mine. We’ll start with that.”
“Let me go alone. We shouldn’t approach Wilta together.”
“I’m not afraid of her.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Jaron, I know now that you were right about this, about them. I was weak, and I was wrong. For the last month, I’ve given these invaders everything they wanted, watched dozens of my people go to their deaths because I failed to defend them. They have looked to me for answers and I’ve turned away. How many times did I protect you when we were younger? I am going down there. Please come, and not because I’m your king, but because we are brothers again.”
“We are brothers again,” I echoed, and I genuinely loved the sound of those words.
With little else available in the area, I grabbed Tobias’s medical bag. Darius tilted his head, curious, but by way of explanation I simply added, “You’ve seen how often I get hurt. Let’s go.”