“You’re here,” Talorc said in his deep, rumbling voice with a hint of bitterness, “because I need a favor.”
A favor? Talorc was asking me for something? It took several moments to wrap my brain around the concept. But his next words drove all thought from my head, leaving me cold and clammy.
“Someone in the Eagle Castle is working ash magic,” he said.
I thought about the wedding box I still hadn’t retrieved, broken in pieces at the bottom of the canyon, or maybe by now in the hands of some Quahtl peasant who would fall ill to its power. Surely Talorc was present when Serrin received the box. Had he guessed what was in the paint? It was common knowledge that I had made the wedding box.
“You seem shocked, as well you should be.” Talorc stood up from his chair and paced back and forth in front of it. “I never thought to see the day the followers of Dera would traipse this far south. They’re usually reluctant to spread themselves too thin.”
I judged the distance to the door and calculated whether Bridei could reach me before I got out. If Talorc thought I was working ash magic, he’d kill me this time.
Taking a shaky breath, I croaked, “And how do you know it’s ash magic?”
He stopped pacing and scrutinized me carefully. I tried very hard to keep my expression bland. He couldn’t know about the box, could he?
“Among the trinkets in Lady Serrin’s dowry was a vase of prickly ash. It’s been in our family since before the goddess’ war. Today, Lady Serrin declared it missing.”
I let out my breath in a whoosh. He didn’t suspect the wedding box after all. I was in the clear, at least for now. But there was no telling what conclusions he would draw when Serrin told him her wedding box was also gone. My mind raced.
From Bridei’s expression, I could tell she knew I was hiding something.
Talorc continued, “You once claimed that my son used prickly ash for enchantment.”
“I thought you didn’t believe your son was an ash sorcerer.” I couldn’t stop the acid that tainted my words.
Talorc turned away, and I wondered if I detected a hint of guilt in the movement. “Of course he wasn’t.” No. Talorc would never admit he’d been wrong. “But you believed it, and you’re rather accustomed to the workings of ash magic. Would anyone but an ash sorcerer have use for such a rare wood?”
My face grew hot as a mixture of shame and anger built inside me. “Anyone could have stolen it. Maybe a servant thought it was beautiful.”
“It wasn’t beautiful. I almost refused to bring it, but the Lady Serrin insisted on something crafted by her ancestors. Besides, the Quahtl care little for wood trinkets.” He sneered. “They consider wood to be weak and temporary. Perhaps I’m leaping the glacier with this, but if there is even a hint of an ash sorcerer being here, we must locate him and stop him.”
“Bridei is very capable of rooting out evil,” I said flippantly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Alswyn né Riata!” Talorc bit off my full title as if he were tearing into a hunk of bark. “You will find this ash sorcerer for me and bring him here.”
The emotions I’d held back rushed forward. I brought my crutch down with a loud crack and took a swinging hop closer to him until we were almost nose to nose. “You are no longer my liege,” I said in a low, venomous voice. “You lost that privilege when you banished me. I don’t take orders from you anymore.”
Bridei grabbed my arm and pulled me back. I gave her a glare that would have withered a meadow of mountain flowers. “Let me go,” I hissed. “I’m going home.”
“No. You can’t leave yet.”
“I told you she wouldn’t cooperate,” Talorc said bitterly. “I would sooner trust Dera herself than this young vixen.”
“You have no choice.” Bridei pointed at the only boot visible under my robes. “That missing foot makes it certain she can’t work magic. Anyone else could betray you. Anyone!” She stared Talorc down, and it was as if my mother stood there in a familiar battle of wills with her king. Maybe Bridei wasn’t in his thrall as much as I’d assumed. “Even me.”
Talorc’s mouth worked, making his mustache twitch and quiver. “Alswyn.” He nearly choked on my name. “Your sister is right. We ... need you.”
I lost all control of my temper. “Now you want my help? I tried to help you once before, old man! You didn’t believe then that I was on your side, so why should you believe it now?”
Talorc turned a bright red, his face a thundercloud. “You had no proof of your accusations, and you were a known servant of Dera.”
“I removed her mark so that I could warn you. I lost my leg, but I saved your kingdom, and your miserable life!”
“You killed my son!” he roared.
The accusation stung, and tears I couldn’t stop sprang into my eyes. But I was too angry to meekly accept his judgment this time. “Cynet would have killed thousands if I hadn’t stopped him.”
“It was your word against his.”
“You were blinded by his charm. If he’d conjured a demon from the Plains of Dera right in front of you, you would have handed him a bouquet of lavender and sent him out to gather eggs.”
“How dare you speak to me that way!” Talorc clenched and unclenched his fists, as if missing the hilt of a sword he could swing at me.
Bridei gave my arm a painful twist. “That’s enough.”
But Talorc wasn’t finished. He spat on the floor in front of me. “I could have executed you for what you did.”
My anger drained, and I deflated like a becalmed sail. The only thing keeping me upright was Bridei’s grip on my arm. “Maybe you should have.”
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