By the time I got to the receiving hall, I was seething. I’d been thrown in a cell and handed a bucket, and my inquiries of when I would see the queen were met with silence. Not a word. An hour of waiting and pacing passed. And then three, sunlight shifting through the tiny window of my cell. I could be here for days, weeks. I knew the game she played. I had played it with prisoners plenty of times. Let them wait and fear the worst.
Maybe her tactic was working. Kazi said the queen would hear me out, but when? And even then, would she really listen? As far as the kingdoms were concerned, Tor’s Watch was nothing but a minor speck on the landscape. All they knew about us was what the King of Eislandia had told them, and he knew nothing. I was through upholding the terms of Paxton’s idiot great-grandfather—a whole town for a round of drinks. If I ever got out of here, I was taking back Hell’s Mouth. We would no longer be held hostage to a gambling debt or defer to a king who had no interest in the town that he didn’t bother to support. We would no longer be ignored. I felt like the voice raging in my head was my father’s. After at least four hours, I was dragged out of my cell by two burly guards who again had nothing to say to me other than shut up. They hauled me through the outpost and threw me into an empty hall to await the queen, my hands still tied behind me. But she wasn’t there.
Twenty minutes passed. Then forty. Silence ticked by. More waiting? The elevated end of the room had two passageways on either side. I waited for someone to come, but no one did.
“Where’s the queen?” I finally yelled. No answer. I let loose with a litany of shouts, demanding that someone come. I heard a baby cry in the distance and then footsteps. Loud, angry footsteps. The crying stopped, but a man burst through one of the passageways, his burning blue eyes landing on me. He stomped down the steps and crossed the room, grabbing my shirt, nearly jerking me off my feet. He held me close so we were eye to eye. “The queen will get here when she gets here, but if you wake my baby daughter one more time, I’ll pop your head from your shoulders. Understand?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“A man who has had very little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. But to you I am King Jaxon.”
The King of Dalbreck. I’d also heard rumors about him, another twelve-foot legend—one with a temper. Right now, he looked like an exhausted, crazed man. And a protective one. He let go of my shirt with a shove.
And then I heard a shuffle. We both turned. Four soldiers filed out of the right passageway, Dalbretch officers by the look of their uniforms, and then just behind them, more officers, but these were Vendan. Griz was one of them. They lined up on the dais, facing me, long swords at their sides, and I wondered if this was going to be an impromptu execution.
There was another shuffle of movement, this one quieter, and from the opposite passageway a woman walked out onto the dais. She held a baby in her arms. The king forgot about me and walked up the steps to meet her. His face was transformed as he looked at her, his rage replaced with tenderness. She looked at him in the same way. They gazed down together at the baby in her arms and the king kissed the queen, long and leisurely as if I wasn’t there.
This was Queen Jezelia of Venda, the one who held my fate in her hands. She was younger than I thought she’d be, and softer and more serene than I’d expected. Maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult after all. She handed the baby to the king, and he held his daughter in the crook of his arm, his knuckle rubbing her cheek.
The queen turned to me, and in an instant her softness vanished. The dreamy eyes she had for her baby and the king had turned hard and cutting. This was a monarch who tolerated no nonsense. She stepped to the end of the dais, confident in her stride, one brow arched in irritation. “So you’re the one making all the noise.”
“I’m the Patrei of Tor’s Watch and I demand—”
“Correction,” she said, briskly cutting me off. “You’re my prisoner and—”
“What do you want me to do? Bow? Because I won’t do that. My realm was centuries old before the first stone was laid in yours. Because—”
She put her hand up in a swift stop motion and shook her head. “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
“I was told I would get a chance to speak!”
“You will, but I get to go first, because I’m the queen, I just went through twenty hours of labor, and I’m the one wearing a sword.” She wasn’t wearing a sword, but I got her point. She may as well have been. “I was told you’re a good listener, but maybe my source is wrong.”
A good listener?
“Kazimyrah, is this the prisoner you told me about?”
I startled as Kazi walked out
of the passageway. Her steps were smooth and composed. She turned to face me, her expression grim, but her eyes only looked into mine briefly before she looked away again. “Yes, Your Majesty. It’s him.”
The queen turned back to me. “Then I expect you to listen, Patrei, because my Rahtan are never wrong.”
I boiled inside like an overheated kettle, but I remained silent waiting for my chance to speak. She had a guard untie my hands, then repeated the charges against me, violating kingdom treaties by harboring fugitives, in addition to conspiring to dominate the kingdoms. I opened my mouth to respond, and she shut me down with a quick glare and tilt of her head.
“However, as Kazimyrah pointed out to me, you have not signed a treaty with the Alliance of Kingdoms, because you are not a kingdom at all, nor are you even part of Eislandia, and yet you are steward of Hell’s Mouth, which is part of that kingdom, which is all a very curious and complicated arrangement. I don’t like complications. Kazimyrah explained to me how that came to pass.” She shook her head. “A word of advice, Patrei, never play cards with a monarch. They cheat.”
The soldiers behind her rumbled in agreement, and the king grinned.
“In addition, she has also made me aware that the King of Eislandia may have not acted in good faith, nor held up the tenets of the Alliance in finding suitable land for a settlement and in fact, may have intentionally chosen your land as a way to provoke you. This does not sit well with me. Using my citizens to settle grudges is not something I take kindly to. They have already been through untold hardships, and I will not suffer fools who bring them more. Nevertheless, I understand you rectified the situation by rebuilding the settlement at your own expense in a better location, and that you were very generous in the process.”
I glanced at Kazi. She stood to the side of the queen, looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with me.
The queen walked down the steps, studying me. I wondered if I was ever going to get a chance to speak, but my gut told me to wait, because none of this was going quite how I expected it to. I was wary, uncertain if I was being led to a cliff and any minute I would be pushed over it.
“Still, you conspired to build weapons,” she continued, “providing the fugitives with materials that could have brought great destruction upon the kingdoms, but my Rahtan tells me the Watch Captain deceived you and his purposes were not your purposes. That you only wanted to protect your interests against aggressors. Should I believe her?”