Yes, it did.
* * *
At Tobias’s urgings, the pirates pushed me along the trail faster than I wanted to go. At first, I tried explaining that I’d fought a duel with Roden, taken a beating along the backs of my legs, swum through an ice water tunnel, and had a rock crash into me, knocking me unconscious, only to be recovered by a medicine that would’ve made me lose my last meal, if I’d had one.
“Sounds like an ordinary day for you.” Tobias didn’t let up on his pace for an instant.
My next strategy was to dig my feet into the ground and slow everyone down, but Teagut only laughed and pushed me onward, with a few of the pirates threatening to carry me like an old woman if I couldn’t keep up.
Since I’d have rather been beaten again than carried, my third strategy was to keep up. And as I did, I slowly warmed up, and the effects of Tobias’s medicine faded.
By the time the cave was in view, I was sore and exhausted, and my temper was stirring. In other words, I felt almost normal.
Dawn had begun hinting at the horizon, a reminder that if Tobias had not forced us to move so quickly, it would have been too late. On the north side of the river, Darius, Amarinda, and Roden stood with their hands bound behind them, each of them surrounded by Prozarian vigils, eighteen in total. None of my other friends were here.
Wilta was the first to see us coming and immediately alerted her mother. From her shocked reaction, she might not have expected me to return by land with an army of banished pirates. In truth, I hadn’t expected this either.
Strick rushed to the edge of the overlook, wildly waving her arms to get the attention of those down on the beach. “All Prozarians, come to the defense of your monarch!”
I said to Teagut, “Send everyone down to stop them. No one gets up here.”
Teagut turned and called to the rest of the pirates, “We’ve been itching for a proper battle. Follow me!”
With eager shouts, they raised swords and scattered, filling the trails down to the beach. Tobias remained at my side, a knife in his hands. I still had the sword from the caves, which I held ready as I crossed onto the overlook.
Captain Strick and Wilta walked forward to greet me, with Lump and Mercy trailing behind them, their weapons out.
Wilta looked past me. “Where’s Phillip?”
When I shook my head at her, she nodded with understanding. “In truth, we didn’t expect to see either of you again, not after all this time.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“On the contrary, I’m relieved to see you here.” She held out her hand. “I assume you have the third lens. I am willing to keep my promise and allow your friends to go free.”
I shook my head. “It’s time to keep my promise to free Belland. Consider this the beginning of our negotiations. But I warn you now, I’m terrible at negotiations. This will be easier if you give me what I want.”
“And what do you want?”
Our eyes met. I didn’t blink once when I said, “I want to finish this. Now.”
Wilta withdrew her hand. Her expression was tight and her temper was already warming. “We are not leaving Belland without the third lens.”
From this height, I saw the ships emptying out as Prozarians ran to the beach to fight the pirates. I grinned. “You are leaving, though not on that ship.”
She turned to see which ship I was talking about. As she did, I lifted my hand high into the air and quickly lowered it.
But nothing happened.
Which was rather embarrassing.
Nothing happened for long enough that the captain finally sighed. “Enough talk, Wilta. End this.”
Wilta gestured for Lump and Mercy to advance on me, but neither one had taken a single step before a loud explosion out in the harbor shook the ground.
Pieces of wood scattered high into the air. A few men who must have still been on board one of the Prozarian ships jumped into the sea as the vessel angled sideways, taking on water from below.
While the others ducked and covered their heads, I rocked back on my heels. It was impolite to boast at a moment like this, but the explosion had been grander than I’d expected. Absolutely worth the extra few seconds of waiting.