“Say ‘please’ one more time.” When there was no immediate reply, Magnus nodded at the guard, who pressed his sword even closer against Kurtis’s pale throat, drawing a thin trickle of blood.
“Pleasssse,” Kurtis managed.
Magnus flicked his hand and the guard removed and sheathed his blade. “See? Don’t you feel better now?”
Kurtis heaved and trembled. Perhaps, unlike Magnus, he’d never before been physically reprimanded for his missteps.
He bowed his head. “Thank you, your highness. I am at your service.”
“Happy to hear,” said Magnus. “Now, I need a message sent to my father immediately. I want him to know what I’m up to here in the north. Wouldn’t want him worrying about me.”
“Of course not, your highness.”
“Be a good grand kingsliege and fetch me some ink and parchment, would you?”
Kurtis’s expression darkened a shade, but he quickly composed himself. “Yes, your highness.”
Magnus noticed Cleo watching as Kurtis left the room, but she said nothing and neither did Nic. When her gaze returned to Magnus, he saw nothing but accusation in her eyes. Perhaps she didn’t agree with the way Magnus reduced that young man into a cowering peon for what may have seemed, to her, like a minor transgression.
Yes, princess, Magnus thought. I am the son of Gaius Damora, the King of Blood. And it’s time I started acting like it.
After a long day working in the Paelsian vineyard, Jonas’s best friend had always preferred ale over wine when relaxing at the local tavern. Judging by the three empty tankards next to Brion, tonight appeared to be no different. Jonas approached cautiously, sitting in the seat opposite him, next to the fire.
“Good evening,” Brion said with a sloppy smile.
Jonas didn’t smile back. Instead, he stared at his friend, feeling uncertain and wary. “What does this mean?”
“Am I . . . dead? Or am I dreaming?”
Brion laughed and drained his fourth ale. “What’s your guess?”
“Dreaming, likely. This scene is far too pleasant to be unfolding in the darklands.”
“So serious tonight.” Brion jutted out his bottom lip and gave Jonas a pointed look. “Hard day on the job?”
A dream. Only a dream. Still, Jonas tried to enjoy being in the presence of Brion Radenos again. He’d been a friend as close as a brother to him, whose death he’d barely had time to mourn. “You could say that.”
“Need some advice?” Brion asked as he signaled the barmaid for more ale.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind a little.”
“All right, here it is. You should give up.”
Jonas frowned. “What?”
Brion’s gaze returned to Jonas’s, and that familiar edge of humor vanished. “Give up. Anything more you think you can do now? Forget it. You’ve failed as a rebel and a leader, time and time again. I’m dead because of your stupid, stubborn decisions. And so are others—dozens have died because of you.”
Jonas winced as if he’d been struck. He looked down and studied the wooden floorboards. “I tried my best.”
“Don’t you get it? Your best isn’t good enough. All those who’ve put their trust in you have died in agony. You’re pathetic. You’d be doing everyone a favor if you surrendered to the king and joined me on the other side of death.”
This was no dream. It was a nightmare.
But something had changed—during his tirade, Brion’s voice had shifted. Jonas glanced up to look at him and found that he was staring into his own eyes.
“That’s right,” the other Jonas snapped. “You’re worthless. You failed Tomas, you failed Brion, you failed your rebel comrades. And Princess Cleo? She was counting on you to bring her that magic rock and save her from the Damoras. Now, for all you know, she’s dead too. Felix shouldn’t have stopped at wounding you. He should have killed you and put you out of your misery.”
The words were blows, each one a fist striking his gut. Of course he already knew all of this, and now his every failure and mistake rose up before him in a mountain of pain, so high he couldn’t see past it.
But with each failure, he had learned. He had grown. He wasn’t the same person he’d been when he’d foolishly followed Chief Basilius and the King of Blood into a war of lies and deceit, in which he and his fellow Paelsians had been used as nothing more than pawns. He had stormed into battle when neither he nor his rebels had been fully prepared. Now he bore the battle scars in both mind and body, each deeper and bloodier than the last.
“No,” Jonas whispered.
The other Jonas cocked his head. “What did you say?”
“No,” he said, louder. “It can be different. I can be different.”
“Nothing is impossible.” He raised his gaze and glared directly into his own brown eyes. “Now leave me the hell alone so I can do what I have to do.”
His mirror image smirked and gave him a shallow nod of approval before disappearing into thin air.
Jonas woke up on a cot, drenched in sweat, and stared up at a black ceiling. The moment he tried to move, his left shoulder screamed with pain.
Beneath the tight bandages covering his wound lay a layer of grayish-green mud. Galyn, the owner of the Silver Toad Tavern and Inn, had put it there, telling Jonas that a witch had once stayed there and his grandfather Bruno had accepted the healing substance as payment.
His feverish body ached as he forced himself out of bed and slowly made his way down the hall, past doorways emanating with both silence and snores. He carefully descended the rickety wooden steps leading down to the tavern. He didn’t know the time, but it was still dark, still night, and the only things keeping him from stumbling were a couple of lit wall sconces. His legs were weak and nausea had fully settled into his stomach, but all he knew for sure was that he couldn’t stay in bed. There was far too much to do.
He would start by getting something to drink; his mouth was as dry as the wastelands of Eastern Paelsia.
He came to a stop when he heard hushed voices within the dark tavern.
“Not a chance. He doesn’t need to know,” said a female voice.
“The message was for him, not you,” her male companion replied.
“True. But he’s in no shape for any of this.”
“Perhaps not. But he’ll be furious when he finds out.”
“So let him be furious. You want him to go rushing out in his condition and get himself killed? There’s no chance he’s strong enough for this right now.”
Jonas rounded the corner and leaned against the wall until he was in full view of Lysandra and Galyn.
“Oh, Lys,” he drawled. “I do appreciate your endless faith in my abilities.”
Lysandra Barbas, his friend and last remaining fellow rebel, grimaced as she turned toward him, twisting a finger through her dark, curly hair. “You’re awake.”
“Yes. And shamelessly spying on the two friends I have left talking about me like I’m a sick child.” He rubbed his forehead. “How long have I been out?”
He gaped at her. Three whole days?
Three days since Felix had sliced that dagger through his shoulder, pinning him to the floor of the tavern.
And earlier, when Jonas had kissed Lysandra for the first time.
Two memories—one bad, one good—forever burned into his brain.
Galyn, tall and heavyset and in his mid-twenties, raised a bushy blond eyebrow. “How’s that healing balm working?”
Jonas forced a smile. “Like magic,” he lied.
In his entire life, he’d never believed in magic. But that stance had been irrevocably changed when he’d been brought back from the brink of death by powerful earth magic. But this so-called healing balm . . . well, he wasn’t convinced that it was anything more than common mud.
smile fell when he registered Lysandra’s garb. She was dressed in trousers and leathers, and had a canvas satchel slung over one shoulder, her bow and quiver of arrows over the other.
“Where are you going at this hour?” he demanded.
She pressed her lips together and didn’t reply, instead shooting him a defiant glare.
“Fine, go ahead and be stubborn.” He turned to regard Galyn instead. “What message was meant for me and who sent it?”
“Don’t answer,” Lys hissed.
Galyn looked between the two uncertainly, his arms crossed over his chest. Finally, he sighed and turned to Jonas apologetically. “Nerissa. She stopped by yesterday.”
Over the recent months, Nerissa Florens had proven herself a valuable rebel spy. She held a position at the Auranian palace, and possessed a rare skill for getting important information exactly when it was needed.
“What was her message?”
“Galyn . . .” Lys growled.
He grimaced. “Sorry, Lys. You know I have to tell him.” Galyn turned his patient face to Jonas once again. “Jonas, the king is having a ship prepared. Nerissa doesn’t know exactly when he’s leaving, but it’s certainly only a matter of days.”
A king preparing to travel wouldn’t usually qualify as important news. But King Gaius had sequestered himself in the palace for months, not setting foot outside the walls since the disastrous wedding between Cleo and Magnus. It was said he feared another rebel attack, and Jonas wasn’t sure if this made him cowardly or smart.
So if the King of Blood was not only leaving the palace, but leaving it for a long journey by ship, it was huge news.
Jonas’s heart began to race. “Did she say where he’s going? Back to Limeros?” The northern kingdom could be reached by land, but it was much more comfortable—and royal—to take a ship along the western coastline.
“No. All she knows is that he’s preparing to sail somewhere, and that no one knows where or when.”
Jonas glanced again at Lys, whose eyes were still trained on Galyn, her face now red with anger.
“Don’t look at him like that,” Jonas said. “You should have told me all this yourself.”
“When? You’ve been unconscious for days.”
“Yes, but now I’m awake and feeling much better.” It was a lie. He felt weak and unsteady, but he didn’t want her to know. “So, what? Your plan is to go out on your own and assassinate the king as soon as he sticks his nose out into the fresh air?”
“That was the general idea, yes.”
“It’s a stupid plan.” Frustrated fury rose within him, blocking out the pain in his shoulder. “You’d do that, wouldn’t you? Run off and get yourself killed trying to vanquish the King of Blood.”
“Perhaps I would. Or perhaps I’d succeed and get him right between the eyes with an arrow, and put an end to him once and for all!”
Jonas glared at her, fists clenched, livid that she’d willingly put herself into danger like this with no one to back her up. “Why would you do this? Go off all by yourself?”
Eyes blazing, she dropped her satchel, bow, and quiver to the floor. She moved toward Jonas so quickly he was certain she meant to hit him. Instead, she stopped just short of touching him, and her gaze softened.
“I thought you were dead,” she said. “When I saw you there, pinned to the floor with that dagger . . .” Her words faded as her dark eyes filled with tears and she rubbed at them angrily. “Damn you, Jonas. First my parents, then Brion and my brother, and . . . and then I thought I’d lost you too. And then even when I knew Felix hadn’t killed you, you were still so sick. Your fever was so high . . . I—I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless, and I hate feeling helpless. But now, with this news of the king’s departure . . . I have a chance to do something, to make a difference. To . . .” Her voice caught. “To protect you.”
He tried to search for words but found he didn’t have an immediate reply. He hadn’t known Lysandra all that long—at least not compared to how long he’d known Brion. Brion had immediately fallen for her, hard, even with that abrasive attitude that she used as self-defense. It had taken Jonas a little longer to warm up to her, but he finally did, and now . . .
“I don’t want to lose you either,” he managed.
“Don’t sound so surprised.” He brought his gaze up from the floor and their eyes met. “And you should know that, one of these days, I do plan to kiss you again.”
Her cheeks flushed once more, and this time Jonas didn’t think it was from anger.
“Should I leave you two alone?” Galyn said.
“No,” Lys said quickly, clearing her throat. “Um. Anyway, speaking of Felix—”
Jonas winced at the name. “What about him?”
“He’s gone. There’s been no news of him, not from Nerissa nor anyone else,” Lys said. “But if I see him again, I’ll put an arrow in him, too, for what he did to you.”
“He could have killed me. He didn’t.”
“Are you making excuses for him? Do I have to remind you that he also stole the air Kindred from us?”
“And we’ll get it back.” Jonas still had the earth Kindred safely hidden away in his room. Not that he knew what to do with it. For a shiny rock that allegedly held enough godlike powers to shake the world, it hadn’t proven all that useful yet. But it wasn’t meant for him, it was promised to another. “Galyn, did Nerissa say anything else? Anything . . . about the princess? Has she been found?”
Galyn shook his head. “No. Princess Cleiona’s still missing, along with Prince Magnus. There is a rumor going through the village, though, that Princess Lucia ran off and eloped with her tutor. Perhaps they’re all together somewhere.”
“Forget the princess,” Lys said, the sharp edge returned to her voice. “What does it matter if she’s alive or dead?”
Jonas clenched his jaw. “She was counting on me to bring her the crystal. She trusted me.”
Lys groaned. “I have absolutely no time to listen to this. I need to be on my way.” She picked up her gear. “Go back to bed, Jonas. Heal. We can deal with your golden princess’s whereabouts later.”
“What? We can’t ignore this chance to put an end to the King of Blood. Are you really going to try to stop me?”
He regarded her for a moment in silence. “No. I’m coming with you.”
She frowned and brought her concerned gaze down to his wound.
“I can manage,” Jonas said. “You’re not talking me out of this.”
He was ready for her to put up a fight—a fight he knew he probably wasn’t strong enough for. All he could do was try to look as strong and determined as possible.
Finally, instead of resisting, she merely sighed with resignation. “Fine. But there’s no way you can go anywhere looking like that.”
“Like what? Do I look that sick?”
“No, it’s just . . .” She glanced at Galyn.
“Everyone knows who you are,” Galyn said, gesturing at Jonas with both hands. “Your face is famous around here, remember?”
Of course. The posters plastered all around Mytica, offering a handsome reward for the capture of Jonas Agallon, rebel leader and (falsely accused) murderer of Queen Althea Damora, had ensured that. He’d been recognized several times in recent weeks, especially in Auranos.
“Fine. I need a disguise,” he said, raising a brow at Lysandra. “But so do you. A huge audience got a nice, long glimpse of you at your interrupted execution.”
She dropped her gear again. “You may be right.”
Jonas touched his dark brown hair, long enough to curl around his ears and drop down in front of his eyes if he didn’t constantly push it back. “I’ll cut my hair.”
“That’s a start,” Galyn said. “And you’re in luck. I have an eye patch you can use. Got stung by a needle-bug a few years ago and had to wear it for a month.”
An eye patch? He tried not to grimace at the thought of
losing half his vision, even temporarily. “Yeah . . . that sounds, uh, great. I guess. Thanks.”
Lysandra pulled a dagger out of her canvas bag. “I’ll cut your hair as soon as I’ve done my own.”
She raised the blade to one of her long, curly locks, but Jonas caught her hand. “You’re not cutting your hair.”
She frowned as he quickly disarmed her. “And why not?”
He couldn’t help but grin. “Because I like your hair exactly as it is. Gorgeous and impossible to control, just like you.”
Her hands were on her hips, and he could tell she was fighting a smile. “Then what kind of a disguise do you suggest for me?”
His smile grew. “Simple. A gown.”
Lysandra’s eyes widened. “A gown?”
“A pretty one. Silk, if possible. Galyn? Do you have anything lying around here that a guest might have left behind?”
The innkeeper chuckled. “Actually, I think I have one of my mother’s old gowns around here somewhere.”
“Good,” Jonas said, deeply amused at the outraged look on Lys’s face. “It seems we’ll be ready and unrecognizable in no time. Let’s get going.”
Her sister, Emilia, once said that she could tell Cleo’s mood by the state of her left thumbnail. Whenever Cleo was stressed or upset, she chewed it down to the quick. According to her nursemaid, she’d also sucked her thumb many years longer than the average child, so Cleo supposed that her nail-biting habit was a natural evolution.
A quick, sharp pain tugged at Cleo’s scalp. “Ouch!” she exclaimed, pulling her sore thumb away from her mouth.
She saw her attendant Petrina’s eyes widen in the mirror. The girl held a small swath of Cleo’s long blond hair. “Oh, your grace, I apologize! I didn’t intend to . . . I’ve never attempted this sort of style before.”
“Ripping my hair out by its roots is not the best way to learn,” Cleo said, her scalp still throbbing. She willed herself to be patient with Petrina, even though she was certain that even Nic could do a better job plaiting her hair.
Frozen Tides Page 3