The wicked heroine, p.64
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.64

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Once the crowds cleared away from the dueling circle, Meena, Sanych and Salvor could see that the prince of Vint had gathered a dozen of the quest’s Vinten guards, always close to hand, in a circle surrounding the three Counts. Now they stood three masts away from the dueling circle, and Geret was speaking to them, although the wind carried his words.

  “What’s he doing?” Sanych asked.

  “Folly!” cursed Salvor, his padded armor now reddened with his blood where it had dripped from his cheek. “He’s tipping our hand!” He started to run toward Geret, but Meena’s strong grip on his arm arrested his movement.

  “I admire your training, Salvor, but does any of that really mean much, out here?” Meena gestured, indicating the wide sea.

  “It’ll make things simpler,” Sanych said, squinting in thought. “I think we might have erred in not doing this earlier.”

  Salvor turned to her and smiled as they kept striding across the deck. “Wisdom love you, Sanych. You’ll be a fine counterpoint to the Dictat someday.” Sanych blushed. “If we all live that long,” he added, glaring back at Geret.

  As the three of them closed in on Geret and his gathering, the guards separated Runcan from the other two and let him go. The red-haired Count came around the circle of guards and stood behind Geret’s right shoulder, whispering urgently. The young prince merely held up a hand to silence him, watching as Armala and Sengril were forced to their knees.

  Salvor swore again and jogged the last few steps to Geret’s left side.

  “Geret–” he began, but the prince interrupted him, speaking to the Counts on their knees.

  “You see what I am willing to do to my friends,” he said coldly, indicating Salvor’s face. “How much worse for my enemies, then, do you think my wrath might be?”

  Armala’s dark eyes darted to Salvor’s face, and in that moment, Salvor saw that the Count had been unaware of his true loyalty until now. “Two years of my life, wasted and worthless,” he growled, causing Geret to glare at him out of the corner of his eye.

  Behind them, Meena sat down on an enormous spool of thick rope, examining her fingernails, her back to the confrontation. Sanych halted with her, but her desperate stare made it obvious she wished to stand closer.

  “Don’t stay on my behalf,” Meena said. “Just remember you’re only an advisor to the prince. And he doesn’t have to listen to you.”

  “I don’t know enough to advise him in this situation anyway,” lamented Sanych, gripping her pant legs tightly in small fists.

  “Then you might as well stay out of his way.” Meena tossed her red-and-brown hair out of her eyes and scraped a bit of dirt from under a nail.

  Sanych reluctantly leaned against the other side of the large wooden spool and stared at the confrontation. The humid sea wind whipped at her hair, and she tucked the fine blonde strands behind her ears, where they could not blow into her eyes again.

  “My prince–” Armala began cautiously, but Geret wasn’t interested in letting him speak yet.

  “How much worse for them, when I learn the truth? That they have an interest in threatening my family? In destabilizing the reign of a good and noble man? How much worse do you think my wrath would be then, good Counts?” Geret breathed, his voice lowering in volume as well as temperature, so that his audience had to focus intently on his words. When he paused, they looked at each other for a few moments, and Armala nodded once, slowly.

  Sengril turned back to Geret and spoke. “My prince, you are an unknown quantity. Your uncle was truly wise to send you with us on this quest. While we have done our utmost for this journey, thrown ourselves into it with all the skills that we possess, we have always wondered if it might not come to this in the end. Was this the Magister’s plan all along? Or did he simply give you free reign over our fates? Although the timing of your decision may never be known to us, ultimately it is irrelevant. We have broken the laws of Vint, and have done so willingly and purposefully. We accept your punishment, whatever it may be.”

  Geret blinked.

  Salvor, right beside him, read the confusion on his face. “This is what it means to be Dictat,” he whispered.

  “You have nothing to say in your defense?” Geret asked.

  “Of course we do,” Armala said. “Are you willing to hear it?”

  “Keep it short.” Geret put his hands on his hips.

  “We have had the worthiest intention in mind during our secret actions: to make Vint a better place. All our work, our going behind the Magister’s back, has been toward a long-term plan for change in the way we deal with our neighbors. A test, if you will. The trade agreements we made, the deals we brokered without his consent, needed to be made to gauge whether our country could succeed in expanding its borders in any direction, or if the idea of a Vinten empire was, in the end, mere folly.”

  Geret looked closely at Armala. “I’m sorry, a what? A Vinten empire?”

  “Yes, of course,” Sengril confirmed, nodding. “With the wisdom that our culture imbues in its citizens from a young age, we believe ourselves to be more capable of successfully controlling a large empire than any other nation on our continent. We’ve put years of study into the feasibility of a Vinten empire, and have since decided to move forward with the next stage: field-testing other nations’ receptivity to new Vinten legal requirements.”

  “By Wisdom,” Geret murmured, rubbing his face with both hands. “Did my uncle know that this was your plan?”

  “We don’t think so, not the ultimate goal, anyway.” Armala shifted uncomfortably on his knees.

  “Did you consider actually telling him?” Geret asked, raising an eyebrow. He faintly heard Meena snort in the distance.

  “He would not have agreed, Geret,” Sengril said, shaking his head seriously.

  “So your plan is to turn Vint into an empire and boot out its Magister too. Have you no respect for what my uncle has done for our country?”

  “My prince, your uncle is a perfectly acceptable ruler of Vint as it is now. Of the empire, should it come to fruition, he would neither approve nor wish to rule. We would not need to ‘boot’ him. He would step down willingly.”

  Armala nodded in perfect agreement with Sengril’s words.

  Geret ground his teeth. The words they spoke sounded like actual language, yet they made no practical sense to him. It was madness of the worst kind: the kind that thought itself sane. He felt slightly dizzy as he tried to imagine what world they must be living in, inside their heads.

  “All right, you admit that you’ve been plotting illegally at home. An offense punishable by death. How about attacking me in Ha’Lakkon? Was that you as well? I’m relatively sure I can’t kill you twice, but I can make it hurt for a long time first.”

  “Geret, I told you–” Runcan began.

  “I know what you told me, Braal. I need to hear it from these fine, upstanding Counts,” Geret countered, never taking his eyes off the kneeling men.

  Sengril responded, “You’re referring to the men who attacked you? That was not on our order, my prince. We would never bring harm to you.”

  “Do you have any way of convincing me of that?” Geret asked, raising his chin and crossing his arms.

  Armala’s eyes flicked to Salvor for a moment. Salvor stared back impassively. “In the future empire of Vint,” the Count said to Geret, “we would need a leader we could trust to grasp opportunities for advancement as they came along. An opportunistic free-thinker. We hoped to test Salvor’s loyalty and further our cause at the same time. We appealed to him to persuade you to pull away from your uncle and be that ruler.”

  Geret’s jaw dropped, and his chest suddenly felt full of cold, empty space. “What?” he managed to ask, his voice faint.

  “The alley attack was your own folly of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The moment we heard what had happened, we sent a sizable monetary incentive to the Governor of Ha’Lakkon, to find and punish the street gang you ran afoul of
. Surely you see that we would never bring harm to you, Prince Geret. We hoped you might rule over us.”

  “Oh, I’ll rule over you, all right,” Geret promised darkly. He turned to Salvor. “Is it true, what they asked of you?”

  Salvor looked at Armala for a moment, then back at Geret. “Yes, it is.”

  “And you didn’t think to mention it?” Geret said with an angry jerk of his head.

  “Since I had no intention of doing as they asked, no. I didn’t feel the need!” Salvor retorted.

  “Why did you think they were trying to kill me, then, when they specifically told you they wanted me alive?”

  Salvor looked Geret in the eyes. “It’s my job. I think everyone is trying to kill you, and not without good reason; you’re practically begging for someone to attack you, when you sneak off the ship and steal into Ha’Lakkon by yourself…” Salvor shook his head angrily. “It was much easier for me to blame the Counts for the alley attack. They’re a known quantity. It would have been easy for them to justify it, seeing a logical chance to keep you from doing exactly what you’re doing now.”

  Geret raised his eyebrows disbelievingly.

  “You still don’t understand the level of subtlety on which the Dictat operates, do you?” Salvor asked, a complex weave of smugness, accusation and frustration in his voice. “They hadn’t yet placed me in their confidence. I couldn’t take the chance of trusting anything they said, especially where your life was concerned.”

  “Do you trust what they say now?” Geret found himself asking.

  Salvor looked over at the Counts again. After several long moments, he shifted his eyes back to Geret. “Yes. They’re angling for leniency by telling the truth.”

  “Too bad for them,” Geret began, turning back to the kneeling men.

  “Wait!” Sanych called, striding over. Her hands were clenched and her face was strained, but she strode right up to Geret and stopped in front of him. Tipping her head way back, she glared into his dark eyes and said quietly, “You have no authority to kill these men, Geret.”

  “Get out of my way, Sanych,” Geret said, putting a hand on her shoulder and pushing her to the side. She let out a small cry of dismay.

  Salvor firmly pulled Geret’s hand away from her, while Runcan protested, “Geret, stop. You’re forgetting what position Sanych holds. It is her right to advise you.”

  Geret paused and looked more closely at the young girl he’d shoved aside. She was shaking and her breathing was uneven, but her face was set in determination.

  He lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry, Sanych. Forgive me.” He waited until she nodded at him, and then tipped his head toward the Counts on the deck and said, “Tell me, then.”

  She took a deep breath. “Not even the Magister himself has the authority to put a Dictat member to death without a full Temple trial. You may bind them over for trial, but you may not punish them yourself.”

  “Well that rule’s gonna be the first to go,” Geret growled.

  “I know, it’s not fair in this instance; they’ve admitted their guilt. But no one will look on you fairly if you are not fair to these men, now.” Sanych’s blue eyes stared intently at him.

  Geret took a moment to consider her words, looking out to the distant blue horizon. Was his upbringing fading so quickly, here in the tropical heat? Melting away like so much stolen ice? He felt terribly off-balance, bouncing from a painful duel with Salvor to breaking open years-old secrets and threatening the traitorous Counts with death.

  He tipped his head up and looked at the incredibly tall masts above him, their lugger sails full of wind. He missed the solid footing of dry ground, and willed himself to remember its sensation. He needed to stop being foolish; this was no prank.

  Geret swallowed and addressed the guards. “Take these two men below to the ship’s brig. Guard them day and night. Give them basic necessities, and all the quest maps and books, but don’t speak to them. They can work for the glory of Vint with an ankle chained to the wall.”

  The guards murmured their assent and helped the men to their feet. All of them escorted the Counts toward the aftmost companionway. Relief was plain to see on the prisoners’ faces, and Armala turned to Geret and said, “I thank Wisdom for your mercy, my prince.”

  “Thank Sanych elTiera. She’s spared your lives,” Geret growled in response. Then he turned to Sanych. “And my somewhat tarnished reputation, too,” he added, then sighed and shook his head, running his fingernails back along his scalp. He raised his eyes and looked at Salvor. “I take it back. You were right. I couldn’t have handled it.”

  Salvor tipped his head slightly in salute to Geret’s admission. “There’s hope for you yet, Geret.”

  The prince turned back to Sanych. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “I didn’t mean to frighten you like that. I…haven’t really felt like myself for days.” Sanych nodded uncertainly at him, but she didn’t seem convinced, and he cursed himself for ten kinds of fool. He needed her expertise on this quest, but he also valued her friendship. He’d lost some of her trust today, and he became determined to earn it back. “If you see my old self wandering around lost anywhere on this ship, send him over, will you?” he said lightly.

  But the Archivist merely smiled briefly and looked away.

  Wincing, he added, “And before I change my mind, I want you to do something for me, Salvor.”

  The nobleman squinted, but readily responded, “What’s that?”

  “I think I’m going to need you to hit me. Hard.”

  “What?” squeaked Sanych, her eyes darting between the two men.

  “Come now, Sanych,” said Meena, who had walked closer unobserved. “Let’s leave the boys to the rest of their resolution, shall we?” She took the Archivist by the elbow and gently removed her from between the two men. “Fill me in on the rules about convicting Dictat members of criminal actions. It’s been a while since I was in Vint,” she said, leading Sanych toward the starboard rail.

  The men watched the women walk out of hearing range. Salvor turned to Geret and asked, “You mean that? Why?”

  “You’re more right about me than I like. I am a fool. I haven’t handled this well, and I don’t really deserve to be in charge of what pitiful remnants are left of my once-grand quest.”

  “You’re right; you don’t,” said Salvor, loosening his right cuff and rolling his sleeve up. “That’s why we all have to rely on each other. Especially now.”

  Geret watched Salvor adjust his sleeve. “I’m kind of hoping that letting you take a shot at me will begin to endear me again to Sanych. I think she’s afraid of me.”

  “She is. You were out of control today. It didn’t help that you were beating on her favorite nobleman just now, either,” Salvor added smugly, flexing his right hand and rolling his shoulder.

  “What she sees in you, I’ll never know. Maybe, if I’d known the real you from the beginning, things might have turned out differently.”

  “Perhaps. You know what else you should wish?” Salvor said, studying Geret’s abdomen critically.

  Geret tensed his trunk muscles in anticipation of the blow. “What?”

  “You should wish you’d specified where you wanted me to hit you,” Salvor said, as the outer edge of his fist connected with Geret’s temple. As his prince crumpled bonelessly to the deck, Salvor grinned, chuckling, as he winced and put his hand on his wounded cheek.

  “Folly, that stings,” he grumbled. He bent down and hefted Geret onto his shoulders, then stood with a grunt. “Luckily for you, payback goes both ways.”

  He carried Geret all the way down to his quarters and flopped him on the bed, tossing a blanket over him, then stood back and studied his handiwork. A deep bruise was already forming on Geret’s temple.

  “Wisdom love you, Geret. I may be sworn to protect your sorry arse, but hitting you made my day. You need any more humbling, just let me know.” Salvor sighed and nodded, then headed back to the upper deck, locking Geret’s door safely behind
him. He grinned crookedly. Couldn’t have anyone else hurting the prince today, after all.

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