I put the ring in my pocket, then took Imogen by the hand, saying nothing as we followed Darius away from the cliff and farther up the hillside. Against the rising sun, we saw the sole surviving Prozarian ship pull away from the docks of Belland, hopefully for good.
“The people are free again,” Darius said. “Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to us.”
“No.” Darius shook his head. “Thanks to you. We both know that, and yet the people here have asked me to be their king. They are rewarding me for a gift I did not give.”
“They chose to honor you for two years of reasons,” I said. “And if it were possible for you to accept their offer, I know you would be great here.”
Darius patted my arm, then turned to Imogen. “What I have to say is for you, and I hope you will pass this message to Jaron when he is able to hear it, and that you will make him understand that these are my wishes.”
I stepped back. Obviously he knew I was here. Why should he address Imogen as if I weren’t?
He took Imogen’s hands in his. “Yesterday, I said something cruel to Jaron, calling him an embarrassment to our family. Those words have haunted me since. You see, I am embarrassed for myself, that I did not understand what he understands, that I did not see what was so clear to him. That for so long, I failed to follow, even when he led with such clarity.”
Imogen shook her head. “Please say this to Jaron, not me.”
“I can’t. We both know that he is also stubborn beyond reason and that even now, he is biting his tongue to keep from arguing back against everything he is hearing.”
He was wrong about that. Even so, I loosened the pressure of my tongue against my teeth and forced myself to unclench my fists.
Darius said, “There has been a great deal of talk these past few days about a true king. In Carthya, that is Jaron.”
I couldn’t stop myself any longer. “Darius, come back with me —”
“The throne belongs to him, by rights of birth, and more importantly, because he has earned it.” Finally, Darius released Imogen’s hands and turned to me. “When you were in the river trying to rescue Wilta, there was a point when your shirt rode high on your back. I saw scars there that a king should never bear. I see the cuts on your hands and wrists now, the slight limp to favor your right leg, and I know you will leave here with new scars. Jaron, I may one day earn the throne the Bellanders have offered me, but there is only one true king of Carthya. And it is you.”
“You must come back.” Tears filled my eyes. “You’re my brother, Darius.”
“I am your brother, always. But we are brothers who will rule from opposite sides of a sea. For now, Belland needs my help here, to rebuild, to regain all that we have lost over the last month.”
Imogen touched my arm, and in her hand I saw Conner’s journal, pulled from her shoulder bag.
I passed it to Darius, who took it with curious eyes. “Read this, and understand who this man was,” I said. “Learn what was good about him, and be warned for where he destroyed himself. In this book, Conner requested that all his possessions be passed to his heir. That’s you, Darius. Other than a portion reserved for Mott, it’s a significant inheritance.”
A smile widened across his face, the smile I remembered so well from when we were boys at play on the castle grounds. “Send everything that you can. That is how I will rebuild this place, make Belland greater than it ever was.”
“I am relieved to do that,” I said. “Because I promised the regents that I would return with a trading agreement. Tell me what you need, and I will provide it.”
“All I ever needed was my brother back in my life.” Now Darius’s smile fell on me, though it could not match the happiness I already felt. “When you return, bring our brother, Fink, along too.”
Darius offered me his hand, and just as Fink had done, I folded him into a warm embrace. I would always miss my parents and mourn their loss, but for the first time since hearing the news of their deaths, I felt something begin to heal.
When I pulled away, I said to Darius, “I will try to be as good a king there as I know you will be here.”
He swatted me lightly against one arm. “Wherever Father and Mother rest with the saints, I know they are already proud of you. Now go back and make Carthya into the country we always believed it could be.”
I embraced him again, then he excused himself to begin addressing the needs of the Bellanders, his people now.
And I took Imogen’s hand again to walk back down the slope.
“What do you think?” she asked. “How does Carthya become the country you wished it would be?”
“For now, I need to sleep,” I said. “After that, it begins with you and I talking through our ideas together. That must always be part of our life.”
“I have only one more request,” Darius called back to me. “Tonight there will be an official ceremony to make me king of Belland. Will you be there?”
“Of course.” In that moment, I believed that nothing would ever make me prouder.