It was evening before Wilta and Lump entered the prison. Both Darius and Amarinda stood to greet them, and by the time they were at the bottom of the stairs, I had managed to stand, though I was leaning on the bars of our cell for support.
Wilta looked over the three of us, but her eyes rested on me as she said, “With the correct lenses, we now know the time to enter the cave. You’ve already climbed it, Jaron, so you know those walls, and you
will climb them again tonight. If you bring me back that third lens, I will release your friends.”
I stared back at her. “Soon after we met, I promised that I would set the people of Belland free. I still have to fulfill that promise. Your offer to save my friends is pointless, because not one of them will face the executioner. Before this night is over, any Prozarians who are still alive will be racing away from this place.”
Her expression hardened. “Let’s try this negotiation differently. What if I bring your friends to the executioner right now … unless you come with me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Can’t you negotiate with anything but lives saved or lost? Honestly, where’s your imagination? If you want my help, I want one thing only.” My gaze shifted to Lump. “Tell me his name.”
Wilta’s nose wrinkled. “Him? His name is Rosewater.”
“Rosewater?” My grin widened as Lump’s face turned to shades of purple. He held up a pair of chains, obviously for me. “Let’s go to that cave.”
Lump grabbed me from the cell, chained my wrists, then roughly pushed me ahead of him up the stairs, though I stopped plenty of times to make him run into me. I never tired of this game.
“I’m wagering every coin I have that you will die inside that cave tonight,” he said.
“I’ll take that wager … Rosewater. Prepare yourself to lose every coin you have.”
Unlike yesterday, there were no great crowds gathered here tonight, only Mercy and Captain Strick and a few other Prozarians. From this height, I could not see the village below, nor see the smoke rising from any homes still on fire, but I smelled the ash in the air.
Mercy drew in a breath of it too and smiled. I loathed him.
Surrounded by Lump and two other vigils, I was led to the cave opening, close enough to the river’s edge that if I tripped, I would instantly be carried into the seawater below. With a bright moon already beginning to rise, it was easy to see inside the cave. The tide was lower than before, but still too high to walk in through the beach, and the riverfall only increased the turbulence of the water below.
Mercy widened his arms to welcome me. “For my people’s sake, I hope you return with the third lens. For myself, I would be equally happy to see you washed out to sea.”
“My happiness will come in watching you crumble in defeat tonight.” My eyes narrowed. “I’m looking forward to it.”
He only smiled, something that genuinely made him look frightening. “Why is that?”
“When I declare victory over the Prozarians tonight, I will preserve as many lives as I can … except yours. Do not get in my way tonight because I have no interest in saving you.”
By then, Captain Strick and Wilta had arrived at the overlook. Folding her arms, the captain said to me, “I understand you better now. You are a curiosity of opposites, leaving me to wonder if you are a brilliant mind or a great fool. If you are a servant or a dictator. If you are the greatest of friends or the worst.”
“I am no curiosity,” I replied. “I am simply a person with whom you never should have started a fight.”
“And why is that? Do you fear losing? No, I don’t think so. Are you so arrogant that to lose would damage your pride? Again, I don’t believe that.” She smiled, coming to her conclusion. “Is it death that you fear?”
My body tensed. “If understanding my mind is the point of sending me after the third lens, I will not go.”
“You will go,” Wilta said. “But not alone.” The red-haired man who’d disposed of Erick’s body, and who had fought me outside Darius’s home, stepped forward from the group. “Phillip is an expert diver. Maybe you will find the third lens, or maybe he will find it, but we will not be tricked again.”
I tightened my jaw and said nothing. Admittedly, this was a problem.
Phillip knelt before Wilta. “Monarch, if I cannot return with the third lens, I will not return.”
“I like his plan.” I patted his shoulder. “Go ahead with it, Phillip.”
Wilta frowned at me. “Why do you keep resisting? Don’t you think it’s time you admitted defeat?”
I widened my arms as far as the chains would allow. “Does this look like defeat?” I shrugged. “I mean, I know this looks like defeat, but things are not always what they appear.” To demonstrate, I stuck my pin inside the chain and released one, then the other, dropping the chains to the ground.
Wilta was clearly unimpressed, which only meant she had never attempted to pick the lock of a chain before. She said, “Do you think that simple trick changes anything? We have played a much better trick on you.”
Roden stepped forward, tears thick in his eyes. I’d never seen him looking so upset before, and when he began to speak, I understood why. “I failed you, Jaron. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”