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To Darkness Fled (Blood of Kings, book 2)

By Jill Williamson

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What do you mean she’s gone?

Vrell Sparrow smiled at Esek Nathak’s sharp tone. She’d been hoping to intrude upon this moment. She twisted the false prince’s silk sleeve in her hands and held her breath, thankful she’d kept the scrap of fabric. Personal items made it easier to look in on someone’s mind like this, as did her tar-black surroundings.

Though she floated with four men in a small wooden boat gliding west across Arok Lake—and Darkness—she nevertheless looked through Esek’s eyes. The former heir to Er’Rets reclined on a cushioned chaise lounge in his solar in the Mahanaim stronghold. The blazing fire from Esek’s hearth warmed Vrell’s…Esek’s right side. Her hands trembled with the fury coursing through his body. She forced herself to ignore it, knowing it was Esek’s anger and not her own.
It galled Vrell that she had to share this man’s mind. The man she had once thought to be Prince Gidon Hadar. The man who had demanded to marry her, putting so much pressure on her mother that Vrell had gone into hiding disguised as a stray boy. A disguise she still wore six months later.

Esek rose from the chaise lounge and circled his steward like a prowling dog. How can this be, Chora? Did you not tell me yourself Sir Kenton posted three guards at her door?

Chora, a short, dark-haired man in brown robes, seemed to shrink whenever Esek addressed him. His b-best men, Your Highness. He swears no man left his post. But the chamber is empty. She must have escaped another way.

Yet Lord Levy assures me that is impossible.

F-Forgive me, my king, Chora croaked out. The lady must be a mage. First taking on the appearance of a boy, now v-vanishing altogether.

Esek threw back his head and groaned. I am surrounded by fools. She’s no mage, you nitwit. Both my prisoners have gone missing in the same hour, and only I can see the truth: the stray helped her. He means to steal my life—my crown and my bride. Find them!

Of course, Your Majesty. Right away. Chora scurried to the door but paused.
Esek fell back on his chaise lounge and crossed his ankles. He snatched a handful of grapes from a tray. Why are you still here?

The steward turned, trembling. F-Forgive me, Your Highness. It’s only…the guards have s-searched the stronghold already. Th-There’s no sign of them. I d-don’t—

The door burst open. Sir Kenton, the Shield, personal bodyguard to Esek, strode into the chamber. A chill draft swept in behind him, followed by a group of New Kingsguard soldiers dragging two of their own—bound and gagged—between them.
What’s this? Esek sat up, swinging his feet to the floor.

Sir Kenton shook his curtain of black hair at the guards, who yanked the prisoners to their feet. These are two of the men who escorted the stray to the dungeons. They were found in the privy on the north wing, bound to one another.
Esek stood and strode to the prisoners. He waved a finger at the gag on the taller man. Sir Kenton withdrew a dagger from his belt and cut through the cloth.

Well? Esek said. What have you to say? Report.

It was Trizo Akbar, Your Highness. The prisoner took a deep breath, as if winded. He’s turned traitor. Maybe always has been. Sir Rigil and his squire too. Trizo led the prisoner away while Sir Rigil and his squire bound us and stuffed us into the privy.

Esek’s temperature rose. How is it a mere stray has garnered every competent servant in Er’Rets? Has not the Council voted me king? Take these fools to the dungeons, Sir Kenton. The rest of you, find the stray, find the boy called Vrell Sparrow, find Sir Rigil and his rosy squire, and bring them to me. Now!

The chamber fell out of focus. Vrell’s head tingled, her body tipped forward. She gasped, and musty, rotten-smelling air filled her lungs. She gritted her teeth and concentrated, putting a hand on the bow of the boat for support. Using her bloodvoicing gift for long periods of time always weakened her. If she could only stay connected long enough to learn Esek’s plan. She concentrated on his face and pressed the wrinkled silk sleeve to her cheek.

The chamber came back into view. A door slammed. Esek and Chora were alone.
Issue a decree. Any traitor will stand before me to be judged. Then a bounty. Five golds for information on the Mârad, Sir Rigil, or his squire’s whereabouts. Twenty golds for the man who brings me Achan Cham alive. Ten if it’s only his head. Fifty golds for Vrell Sparrow, unharmed.

F-Fifty, Your Majesty?

Have you written it down?

Yes, Your Majesty. Chora lowered his voice. But why not disclose that the boy is really Lady Averella Amal?

Because it would work to the stray’s advantage. Should the people discover Averella travels with him, they might think the duchess supports his claim to my throne. No. Let them keep their secrets. The money will be enough to bring them both to me. The sooner the better. I am loath to marry Lady Mandzee Hamartano. Now that woman is a mage. Do you recall how she—

A sharp pain shot through Vrell’s ear. She moaned and forced her eyes open. Blackness surrounded her, like the deepest, darkest cave. She no longer sat on the wooden bench of the boat but found herself scrunched in the bow, head bent awkwardly to one side, sleeve still clutched in her hand. Mosquitoes buzzed nearby. The boat rocked softly on the lake’s surface.

A voice came from the darkness above. “Sparrow?”

Vrell jumped at the volume of Achan’s voice. Noises always seemed louder after bloodvoicing, like her head had been wrapped in bandages that fell away all at once.

A hand patted Vrell’s knee, then waist.

She jerked upright, not wanting anyone to feel her undergarment. The fake belly acted like a corset, padded with shorn wool rather than lined with whalebone. It gave her slender feminine shape that of a pudgy boy. “Do not touch me!”

“Whoa. It’s just me: Achan.”

She groped for the wooden bench and pulled herself back onto it. This was the longest she’d gone yet before blacking out. Perhaps she only needed practice to strengthen her ability.

“You fall asleep or something?” Achan mumbled, as if trying not to open his mouth when he spoke. The cuts on his cheeks must’ve been hurting him.

She strained to see him but her eyes could not penetrate the surrounding blackness. She was blind here, dependent on movement, sound, and smell. The boat rocked gently beneath her. She could hear the Old Kingsguard knights—Sir Gavin, Sir Caleb, and Inko—murmuring in the back of the boat. Sir Gavin’s paddle dipped in and out of the water. And the smell…as if they were sitting on a dung hill.

“It is difficult not to in this light,” Vrell said.

Achan chuckled. “Well, if you’re that tired, stay there.” He paused, and his next words came out in a mumbled rush. “I’d hate to have to dive in and rescue you twice in the same day. ’Sides, I doubt I’d find you in this…light.”

A sudden chill seized Vrell at the memory of nearly drowning that morning. She shoved Esek’s sleeve into her satchel. “I am fine now.”

“If you say so. You’re the healer.” Achan’s boots thunked on the bottom of the boat, lurching it as he moved away. When he spoke again his voice was quiet. “Sparrow’s just tired. So, Inko, finish your story about Barthos’ temple.”

Inko’s raspy, jilted accent lifted out of the abyssal surroundings. “It wasn’t being until King Trevyn was first visiting the village that any Kinsman was ever stepping inside the shrine.”

“It’s really a pyramid?”

“Yes. It’s being made of stone, being hollow inside all the way to the top.”
“How’s it stand without the support of floors?” Achan asked.

“A structure like that would be quite stable,” Sir Caleb answered, his voice low and polished. “With the large base and the way all four walls push against one another, not even the wind would sway it. It’d be much stronger than any keep.”

“It was being designed to look like it was rising out of the ground to be honoring Barthos,” Inko said.

As the Old Kingsguard soldier continued his tale of Barthos, the false god of the soil, Vrell pondered what she had witnessed through Esek’s eyes. Her worst fears were confirmed. Esek now knew the truth: Vrell was really Lady Averella Amal, heir to Carm Duchy. What now? Should she continue to play the role of Vrell Sparrow when the man she hid from knew of her disguise? It seemed pointless.

What would her companions do if they discovered the truth? They would likely come to her aid—Achan especially. He would see it as a betrayal, though, and that would hurt him. He had been through so much already. So many lies…
Mother would know what to do. But Mother had not answered Vrell’s bloodvoicing calls. Lord Nathak’s men had done something to her. Vrell fought the tears stinging her eyes and prayed Sir Rigil and Bran were riding to her mother’s rescue this moment.

Dear Bran. His service to Sir Rigil had made him a hunted traitor. Please, Arman, do not let him be captured.

Vrell shook her thoughts back to the present. For now she should at least inform Sir Gavin about the bounties Esek had ordered. As the head of Achan’s personal guard, the knight should know what they were facing.

She scratched a mosquito bite on her cheek and stared into starless void above. She must not despair. Arman, the one God, could see their path even if she could not.

“Bet Jaira hated that.”

Achan sounded so amused that Vrell tried to focus on the men’s conversation.

“Yes,” Inko’s low, raspy voice drew Vrell in, “but to be refusing her father publicly would have been bigger a disgrace. So she was allowing the Barthians to cover in mud her skin.”

Achan’s deep laugh made Vrell smile, and he said, “Oh, I wish I could’ve seen—”
Something scraped the left side of the boat. Vrell jerked her fists up to her chin, shaking at the horror of this dark place. It reminded her of the underground river from Xulon after their lamp had shattered. Did reekats live in Arok Lake? How would Peripasio, her pruny old friend who lived underground, fare in such a place?

“What’s that?” Achan asked.

“Branches.” Sir Gavin’s paddle glubbed beneath the surface, thrusting the boat onward. “Dead, by the feel of them.”

“Already we’re being close to shore? Not the south shore, I am hoping?”
A long sniff answered Inko’s worrisome question. Sir Gavin’s odd habit of using his nose to calm himself. “Aye, Inko. The south shore.”

“Is everything dead here?” Achan asked.

“Oh, no,” Sir Caleb said. “You’d think so, without the sun, but life is…stubborn.”

“Please be explaining, Gavin.” Inko’s voice sounded more stressed than usual. “Did you mean to be bringing us to the south side on purpose? Esek’s men will already be following. We must be—”

The boat scratched to a halt in the twiggy branches. Vrell gripped the bow to keep from falling off her bench.

A heavy sigh. “And now we’re being stuck.”

Sir Gavin’s paddle clunked on the side of the boat. “We must get off the water. Only I can’t be certain how close the shore is with all this dead shrubbery. I need to seek out a bird but…”

“What do you sense?” Sir Caleb asked.

“Our pursuers are close. Come over the side with me, Caleb. We must tow the boat out of sight. Now.”

Out of sight? Vrell almost laughed. Who but Arman could see in this cursed place? She whipped around, scanning her surroundings for any trace of light and saw none. She reached out for an open mind, but everyone in their boat—even Achan—was guarding himself well.

Leather scraped against the left side of the boat and someone grunted. Water glubbed and the boat rocked. Vrell swallowed, gripped the boat’s edge, and prayed for Arman’s protection. The boat tugged forward, ripping past the twiggy branches. The knights were pulling them along. Was the water shallow enough to wade or were they swimming?

“Keep quiet, now,” Sir Gavin whispered as the boat slid to a stop. “We’re being hunted.”

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