The crowns dog, p.15
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       The Crown's Dog, p.15

           Elise Kova
 
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  He imagined the Emperor back then, hunting through the blackness of the winding caves for the world’s most famous thief. Erion envisioned the char on the ceiling from dozens of guards’ torches. The scuffs on the walls were from their shining armor digging into the soft stone of the cliffs that surrounded Oparium.

  In the footsteps of an army, Erion imagined they were not so alone, and he took what courage he could from it.

  After a long stretch of deafening silence, the rumble of the sea rose up to meet them. Between the crashing of waves, words were carried on the wind. Barely audible, they were more sound than utterance, but it affirmed for them both that the path Nana had led them on was, indeed, the right course.

  Erion grabbed Baldair’s shoulder, leaning in close to keep his voice to a hush. “Now listen, don’t do anything rash,” he urged. “We know these people are dangerous.”

  “Since when have I ever been known to do anything rash?” Baldair grinned, the candlelight illuminating the stubble that covered his chin in a golden haze.

  “This is serious, Baldair. Help won’t be coming for at least another hour.” Nana had to get to town and back. Spry though she might be, the distance could only be covered so quickly.

  “We already discussed this.” Baldair reminded him. It had been their great debate—to fetch the guard first, or go ahead. When it came to the fact that Jax was somewhere alone with the smugglers, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

  “Don’t forget it then.” Erion gave Baldair a pat on the shoulder, half pushing him forward.

  He drew his sword slowly, the blade vibrating against the scabbard. Erion adjusted his grip, making sure he had a firm handle on it. His fingers couldn’t seem to find their usual grooves on the pommel as the two hastily-armored men continued to inch toward the opening visible around the bend.

  Baldair took one wall and Erion pressed against the other, side-stepping to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

  “Is the princeling gone yet?” a voice asked.

  “Nana has yet to report.”

  “He was seen on the Lady Black, so I doubt it,” another pointed out.

  “Surprised he had the courage to investigate that far,” someone else sneered.

  Erion looked over at Baldair. His brow was furrowed. “Don’t,” he hissed at the prince.

  “More surprised he didn’t wet himself when he saw what we did to Renalee.”

  “Maybe he did, and Nana just didn’t tell us. She’s practically the boy-prince’s wetnurse.”

  Baldair shot from the alcove and Erion pressed his eyes closed with a heavy sigh. He was in motion, too, however. If his prince was going to be a suicidal level of stupid, then Erion would follow. That was what true loyalty meant.

  “Drop the boxes!” Baldair demanded, pointing his sword down at the men and women who had been ferrying crates from a nearby dock. “You are under arrest by the will of the Crown for smuggling, theft, murder… and many other horrible things.”

  “Elegant,” Erion muttered with a side-glare.

  Baldair gave him a grin that quickly disappeared when the briefest of cackles filled the air, followed by two terrible words.

  24. ERION

  THERE WERE TWO of them and six of the pirates. Erion’s heart was in his throat. He perspired instantly, his head dizzy. He adjusted his grip on his sword, the familiar leather smoothing under his palm.

  His fingers found their preferred spaces effortlessly. He relaxed his grip, spinning the blade in place. This was center. This was the beginning.

  Erion launched himself into the fray.

  There was no time to be fearful, no spare moments in which to hesitate. This was everything the majors had ever told him. The way of a swordsman was seeing your own life in another and having the will to cut that man down.

  With a flash of magic, a spear of ice materialized before him. Erion bent backwards, dodging wildly. A strong hand gripped his bicep, helping right him, half throwing him back in a sprint forward.

  Where Erion would expect a quip, Baldair’s face was severe. There was no lightness, no revelry in the task placed before him. He was doing what he felt was right, but he did not relish what “right” required.

  Baldair met the melee first, stable on his feet after launching off a crate and falling past the lower tier of the room entirely. The smuggler pulled out a thin blade with a spin, making no effort to parry. A rapier against a long sword would be a fool’s battle of strength. The pirate darted back like a wasp, stinger at the ready.

  Erion could no longer focus on Baldair; he had his own set of problems. Another spear of ice materialized before him, sending him tip-toeing nearly off balance in an effort to avoid its wicked sharp point. He didn’t even see the third spear.

  A hiss of steam and a flash of heat alerted him to the magic that had nearly ended his fight before it had even begun.

  “You’re welcome!” a familiar voice called.

  Erion turned in the direction of the echo’s origin. Sure enough, bolting from behind a stack of crates was Jax. Erion let out a breath that almost bordered on laughter.

  “You worried us, friend!”

  Jax had survived. The mere fact poured bubbling relief into Erion’s veins that made his feet feel lighter. He turned on the pirate now closest to him with a lunge.

  The pirate held out her hand at the sword point, pushing it down with a sheer of ice and splintering snow, deflecting it away from her chest. Erion twisted the blade, pushing his weight evenly back between his heels and drawing the steel back up instantly.

  The pirate pulled backward. Erion took the opening to push forward, pommel nearly to chest. Once more the pirate resorted to magic to deflect his charge, but the margin was far narrower.

  Another hiss of steam and flash of fire, and her ice faded.

  Erion brought his blade inward, where it caught on the woman’s shoulder. He felt the momentary resistance, the give as skin and flesh ripped under the edge of his sword. Her cry, half snarl, resounded in his ears and stilled his world.

  I am going to kill her, the words echoed in his mind. No matter how justified he was. No matter how much he knew it was right. No matter how slowly he witnessed her gathering strength, her shifted momentum, her magic in hand, how much blood lust she had in her eyes for him, the words didn’t seem to add up.

  Erion willed himself to move. He willed his arms to push forward, his weight to fall behind the sword and cleave right through her chest to the very lifeblood that beat from her

  heart.

  The strength wasn’t there. What was there was a dagger of ice in her palm. A hand shooting out faster than he could blink.

  Almost faster than he could react.

  Erion let out a shout of half-surprise, half-pain as the frigid blade bit into his side, tearing through the leather.

  He pushed his sword down then, but there was no sticking power to it. She was a more seasoned fighter and had none of the reservations he struggled with.

  The woman’s face, so intent on his death, suddenly burst into flame. Not even her surprise could summon enough magic to shield herself from the white-hot fire. The pirate stumbled backward, and a body pushed him out of the way. Erion stumbled and tripped, falling to the ground.

  A Western woman with high cheekbones and a strong profile reached for the pirate. Her hand clasped over the pirate’s mouth, locking in the woman’s final scream. Fire burned down her throat, illuminating her from the inside. It licked through her eyes and poured from her ears.

  By the time Erion’s savior pulled her hand away, there was nothing more than a charred corpse where the enemy had been moments before.

  “Up with you!” she demanded before launching back into the fray.

  Erion blinked, but his limbs obliged her command.

  The pirates were two down, the Crown’s fighters matched four on four.

  The Western woman had already begun making a run for the pirate Jax was engaging. Seeing them fight, ablaze in magic,
Erion almost understood the fear of sorcerers that crippled Southerners. The only person who could stand against a trained sorcerer was another sorcerer.

  Erion launched himself at the pirate who made a jab toward his new ally. A curved blade rang out against Erion’s, sheering off with a vibration that rattled straight to his shoulders. The woman had helped him; he would see the favor returned.

  This pirate seemed to hold no magical prowess. It was a battle of blades, and with no sorcerers to intervene, Erion felt much more in his element.

  The man used a number of defensive swings in an effort to keep Erion at bay. An upward jab, a parry and repost, a carefully placed slash—it was all executed with confidence, though it was nothing more than child’s play. Erion’s viciousness couldn’t match his opponent’s, but he had years of training behind him.

  He inhaled sharply, the blade’s edge narrowly missing his face. His hand moved faster than his mind could think. The sword dipped, finding purchase against the man’s thigh.

  The pirate cried out but was undeterred. Erion worked to silence his mind. He didn’t think about what his next attack would look like or where it may land. He existed purely on the instinct forged into every twitch of his muscle.

  Erion drew a crimson line across the man’s throat with the point of his sword. The pirate stumbled backward, gurgling and gripping at the wound. Erion watched with horror as the echo of the man’s blade dropping to the ground reverberated in his ears. And then a chilling silence overtook his enemy’s body as it crumpled, leaving stillness where there had once been life.

  25. JAX

  JAX’S SHOULDERS HEAVED, and his chest burned, not from fire, but from the toil of the fight. He stared over the smoking remains of the woman Nox had referred to as Henrietta, leader of the pirates. His newest ally had stepped in to deal the killing blow. But even if it had not been by Jax’s hand, he still felt the loss of life flow from the dead woman, into his body, and then out into the world beyond—something that could never be reclaimed.

  At the sound of a sword sheathing, Jax turned to assess his friends. Baldair stood over two dead bodies, Nox near him. Erion had a man of his own at his feet. Two other corpses had fallen at the start of the fight to the deadly inferno known as Nox. The one beneath him made six.

  Judging from Baldair and Erion’s faces, today’s kills were their first. Something had changed in their eyes that would never return to what it was.

  Jax wiped sweat from his forehead. He was boiling despite the general chill of the caverns.

  “Are you both all right?” He was the first to move.

  Erion and Baldair both seemed to take stock of themselves for the first time.

  “Erion, you got one on your hip.” Jax pointed to the oozing wound.

  Erion pressed his hand against it, wincing slightly at the pressure. He pulled it away, looking warily at the tear in his own flesh. “It’s not that bad.”

  “Nox, do you have any more potion?” Jax asked.

  She shook her head.

  “I’ll burn it to stint the bleeding,” Jax offered, and Erion accepted with a nod. He grit his teeth and braced for the ministrations Jax was about to deliver.

  “Nox?” Baldair asked, assessing Jax’s companion and no doubt focusing on anything but the smell of burning flesh and the muffled grunts of Erion’s pain that filled the air. “From the Lady Black? The sailor who chased the smuggler?”

  “She saved me,” Jax explained succinctly. All he knew for certain about the woman was that she was as secretive as he. There was no need to draw attention to the fact, especially not when she had already proved her merit as their ally time and again.

  “And the rest of you.” Nox adjusted her braids, pulling long strands of hair away from where they had come loose and hung in her face. “I was told you were a noble fool, but that truly exceeded my every expectation.”

  Baldair blinked, caught in whiplash from both the aftershocks of the fight and the woman’s casual, forward demeanor. Jax knew Baldair was unaccustomed to a woman doing anything but throwing herself at him. He failed to suppress a snicker, which earned a pointed look.

  “Jax, I didn’t realize you were now in the business of babysitting lost, sassy children.” Baldair’s words lacked bite, his laughter betraying his genuine amusement at the woman’s attitude toward him.

  “I think I’m the babysitter.” Nox’s voice was barely audible, her face halfway stuffed into a crate. Wood shavings and cotton scraps flew everywhere as she rummaged through its contents.

  “What’re you looking for?” Baldair asked.

  Jax stepped over to Erion. The man hadn’t taken his eyes off the corpse before him. Jax could’ve offered any amount of condolences, soothing words, reassurances. The dead man would surely have killed Erion, that was true. He was also an accessory to a number of crimes and likely committed more than a few as well.

  But Jax knew nothing but time would shake that sickening feeling that was, no doubt, settling uncomfortably in Erion’s stomach.

  So all he did was raise a hand to the man’s shoulder, bringing an arm around his back. Jax held his friend tightly for several long moments in silent solidarity. Then he released and rejoined the conversation. Lingering would solve nothing. For now, it was important to keep Erion moving, to keep them all distracted. The real trials would come at night, days, weeks, months later, whenever the realization of what he’d done finally came home to roost.

  “It’s not here either.” Nox sighed, gripping the rim of an open trunk.

  “You still haven’t told me what we’re looking for.” Despite that, Baldair was rummaging through crates anyway.

  “Adela Lagmir stole the crown of Lyndum and fled with the other wealth of the old king.” She stood, her hands on her hips. She had gone through half the boxes on the lower tier. Her eyes scanned the room. “When the Emperor—your father, Baldair—chased her down the coast, she fled, giving all the impression she’d taken the treasure with her. But I know it’s still here.”

  Jax had never heard someone use Baldair’s name without title so easily. Even though Baldair usually gave citizens leeway to do so, it was surprising to see the right assumed. The girl knew something for certain.

  “How are you so sure she left it?” Jax asked. “You said, if I helped you, you’d give me information on the treasure.”

  Nox gave a half-turn, assessing him thoughtfully. “I overheard them talking when we were docked in the port here to unload some stolen goods. They said someone was searching the caves and found ‘it’. I assumed ‘it’ must mean the treasure. What else?”

  She was lying. He’d bet anything on it. But Jax stilled his tongue. Even if she was, he had no proof of deception. It would be a matter of his suspicion against her word. He didn’t even know what she was lying about: the fact that she’d overheard the smugglers, or that they were still searching the caves for the treasure. All he knew for sure was that some part of her story ran false.

  “I think you’re right.” Baldair produced a folded bunch of papers from the top of his calf-height boot. “And we just so happen to have the map.”

  “You do?” Nox was skeptical. “Someone made a map?”

  Baldair nodded to Nox and then explained to Jax’s quizzical stare, “Renalee had apparently been searching for the treasure for some time.”

  And that would’ve been knowledge enough to kill her for. Jax felt like things were finally clicking into place.

  “Well, show me,” Nox demanded.

  “The city guard is coming; we can ask them for help,” Baldair said. Jax noted his prince didn’t move to share the map with their newest ally.

  “I’m not interested in waiting.” Nox waved the idea away. “Besides, it would mean more people can get their hands on it. Don’t you want to be the only one to touch it, to hold it? Think of what the history books will say about ‘he who finally rested his hands upon the lost treasure of Adela.’”

  Baldair scoffed. “It’s my family’s
treasure. If anyone gets to hold it, it’ll be me.”

  Nox rolled her eyes. “I think I deserve this, especially after I helped you.”

  “Lay out the papers, Baldair,” Erion encouraged. “I’m sure there’s more than enough treasure to go around.”

  “Now you want a cut, too?” Baldair’s shock was complete pretense.

  “I agree with the lady; I think we’ve all earned it,” Erion responded coyly. “What better way to end the summer than actually finding some long-lost pirate treasure? We’ve already hunted a ghost, stopped a murderer, and caught smugglers red-handed. We earned it.”

  “I agree. At this point, it’s basically our divine right,” Jax encouraged.

  Pressing on was no more foolish than anything else they’d done, and Jax didn’t want to stand in that room a moment longer, just waiting for the guards to come. He didn’t want Baldair and Erion to sit and stare at the corpses they’d made. He’d grasp at any purpose to spur them to action.

  Baldair dropped the papers with a chuckle, outnumbered. He carefully arranged them into what took shape as a map, and the four hunched over to debate which route was the most likely to reveal the greatest treasure of their time.

  26. JAX

  ERION CONTINUED TO fidget nervously. Jax thought it was well possible that he may explode from the energy. “Are you sure this is the right path?” he asked for the seventh time.

  “It’s what’s on the map,” Baldair insisted, now holding out the paper for emphasis.

  “We’re getting far from the main hall. If we get lost…”

  “Stop worrying. What do you think I’m doing this for?” Nox shifted her grip on the dagger she was dragging along the wall, chipping into the stone with a faint, gray chalky line. “It’s certainly not an art piece.”

 
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