Authors: Breeana Puttroff
Marcus’ eyes swept the room with practiced precision, and Zander followed suit, noting both that someone had closed the door and that James had disappeared, likely to the other side of it. For a moment, he was afraid Marcus might ask him to leave, but he didn’t. After a quick glance at Quinn, he answered Thomas.
“We had a visit today from a guard who normally works at the border crossing in Manderdale. He’s almost certain he saw Callum Haddon crossing the border nearly three weeks ago.”
“Three weeks ago?” Linnea spluttered. “So straight there from here?”
“Yes. We tried to keep all of this quiet for too long,” Quinn said. “We only finally sent the order to the border guards to notify us last week. This guard wanted to bring the information directly to us, rather than sending it through channels where it might be compromised.”
Zander was more concerned about the word
. “Have you let Stephen know Callum might be in his kingdom?”
Quinn shook her head. “Not Eirentheos, Zander. Manderdale is on the border between Philotheum and Dovelnia.”
He frowned. “That’s the kingdom Tolliver’s father was from, right?”
“Yes,” Marcus answered. “Hector first came here to Philotheum as the ambassador from Dovelnia.”
“Okay. Do we have an ambassador from Dovelnia now?” He hadn’t met one.
Quinn shook her head. “No. Dovelnia withdrew all of their support from Philotheum after Hector’s death. Or it may have been when we made the announcement that Samuel’s
would be ascending the throne, rather than someone’s son.”
“Nice. Why would it matter so much to them? It’s not their throne.”
Nathaniel spoke this time. “The throne of Dovelnia has always prided itself on being very
traditional – that’s
their word, of course. It doesn’t matter to them that our traditions are just as strong, but different. In their kingdom, the throne can pass to any son in the royal line; their king actually chooses the succession order of his children. If he doesn’t think his firstborn is up to the task, he can list another son as his heir.”
“Yes,” Marcus said. “As it happens, King Ivan’s oldest child is a girl, though his next two children are sons, but he has named his younger son as his successor.”
“What if a king doesn’t have any sons?” Zander wondered.
Marcus shrugged. “They have a lot of disputes between members of the extended royal family. At any rate, our relations with Dovelnia have been strained since Hector died. Now we have evidence that they’re harboring at least one of our enemies.”
“Has anyone seen
at the border crossing?”
“He hasn’t been reported at one, no.”
“But then it’s possible we were lucky this time to hear from a border guard who is loyal to me,” Quinn said, looking down at her hands. “We don’t know that all of them are.”
“Many are,” Marcus said. “There are ways to get to Dovelnia without going through any border checkpoints, and the control is light at many of them, especially away from the larger cities. Let’s not assume the worst. There are guards in every position throughout the kingdom who are very loyal Friends of Philip. Their loyalties are to your family
“So…” Zander looked between Marcus and Quinn. “Is that the only way if you know you can trust a guard or not? If they’re in the Friends of Philip and have that tattoo?”
Everyone was quiet for a long moment before Quinn finally spoke. “No, not exactly. There were some who never even knew about the resistance during Hector’s reign as Prince Regent. Others probably disagreed with Hector and Tolliver but were afraid of the consequences of actually tattooing their disloyalty on their bodies. Some of them are loyal to me now.”
“But you can trust the Friends of Philip more.”
“Overall, yes. But just because a guard is
a Friend of Philip doesn’t mean I can’t trust them.
not and you’re here in this meeting. And I can’t require my guards to join because that would just defeat the purpose. I can’t even show favoritism to guards who are Friends – or I have to be very careful if I do.”
I join the Friends of Philip?”
“No, Zander. See? That’s the problem right there. It has to mean something, it has to be a personal choice, and joining by itself doesn’t make you trustworthy – nor does not being a part of it make you dangerous. Besides, it’s mostly symbolic now anyway. The resistance succeeded. We won – the throne was returned to the ‘rightful heir’ and all that. So, no, it’s not necessary to join.”
“What if I wanted to?”
Nathaniel cleared his throat. “Do you want to?”
“I don’t know. I’m just asking a what-if.”
“The ‘what-if’ is not whether you can or should join – the whole question is whether you want to. So, no, if you can’t honestly answer that you want to, that you’re willing to make that commitment, then joining is not the right thing for you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” William added. “You’re not in that place emotionally, and why would you be? I wouldn’t have joined a resistance against anything in Bristlecone.”
“Not even if you were stuck there and it was important?”
“After being stuck there less than two moons? No. Besides, if you joined right now, you’d end up missing several days of training. There’s no swinging a sword right after getting
tattoo.” He put his hand over the upper left side of his chest.
“It can’t be that bad, can it?”
“Join,” Linnea said, with a tone in her voice he was becoming entirely too familiar with. “Find out.”
“Can I go back to my world now and write a few more college application essays? Maybe take a Calculus test?”
“Sure, just find a gate,” William said. “Or build a transporter or something.”
“I’ll get right on that. Anyway, so Tolliver may be getting help from the king in Dovelnia?”
“Yes,” Marcus said. “At this point, I would say it’s very likely he is. We’ve known for a while that he has to be getting support from somewhere, and we’ve suspected Dovelnia before – from the beginning, really.”
“So what does that mean?”
Marcus looked at Quinn again.
She swallowed hard as William slipped his hand behind her back again. “Our best guess is that they have some kind of plan that will allow Tolliver to take back the throne.”
Zander’s mouth was suddenly dry. Judging by the expressions on the other faces in the room, he wasn’t the only one.
“What kind of plan?” Thomas asked.
, we could defend against it.” Marcus was staring at his hands. “Right now, all we know is that Callum Haddon is definitely involved – and he was here, in the castle talking to a large number of guards and other people. We also know that someone with intimate knowledge of our investigation alerted him, so we’re clearly compromised.”
“Why is this just happening now?” Thomas asked. “Quinn’s been on the throne for a long time.”
Marcus shrugged. “Tolliver was in prison most of that time. Also, we don’t know exactly what they have planned. Up until now, we’ve assumed the biggest targets were Quinn and Samuel – that Tolliver would eliminate both of them and then take what he wanted.”
Though Zander knew Marcus only used it because he couldn’t bring himself to utter the real term, the casual sound of the word “eliminate” sent chills up his spine. He suddenly felt naked without his sword. “And now you don’t think so?”
“I don’t know. But that idea fails to take a very important factor into consideration. The Dovelnian king is very religious. Their oracles are highly regarded as sources of absolute truth. While we never took the prophecies completely seriously – they did. Hector and Tolliver did as well. They may not want Quinn on the throne, but Samuel…”
Quinn had obviously heard all this before, but she started to breathe faster, and she reached then for the baby, pulling him from William’s lap into hers. William reached all the way around her back, scooting her so close to him that they practically became one person.
“Okay,” Thomas said, clearly seeing the same thing Zander was. “The question is,
what do we do
“Well, our first priority, obviously, is keeping everyone safe. We’re increasing the guard coverage here, especially over Quinn, William, and Samuel. All three of you – and actually Thomas and Linnea as well, will need to be accompanied constantly by a guard we trust, unless you’re in this wing which will be closed and guarded.
“We’ll keep the Blackwelders with Quinn and Samuel as much as possible, and utilize other Friends of Philip guards when we have to. Also, all guards who work with the family or in the castle itself will be investigated thoroughly, including their associations. We expect some massive backlash, but any guards we have any questions about will be reassigned to positions away from the castle.”
“Sophia may murder me herself for that one.” Quinn cradled the baby closer. “Jonathan should be returning in the morning, and we’ll make some more decisions then. Charles went home for the evening, with two guards he knows well – he’s nervous enough that he’s considering sending Thea and the children somewhere he feels is safer. If something
happen, then Gianna would be at risk, too.” She looked at Nathaniel. “We also think you should hold off on bringing Cammie and the children here until we know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Quinn paused, studying Nathaniel for a moment. “She wasn’t planning on coming anytime soon anyway, was she?”
It wasn’t any of his business, but Zander had been wondering about the absence of Nathaniel’s fiancée himself. He’d sort of expected to see her and her children at the Naming Ceremony.
“No, Quinn. Not until Tolliver has been dealt with. He frightens her.”
Quinn swallowed but nodded – two of Cammie’s children had been affected by the shadeweed poisoning incident. “I sent a message to Stephen a few hours ago as well, but he likely won’t receive it until morning.” For a moment her eyes fell on the couch where Thomas and Linnea were sitting together; Zander had a feeling she was about to say something else, but then Marcus cleared his throat.
“There are also riders going out to all of the Dolvenian border crossings tonight alerting them to a lockdown. All traffic in or out will be registered and reported directly to us.”
Thomas let out a low whistle. “That could start a war.”
“Better to be prepared to defend ourselves than to be caught by surprise,” Quinn said. “If we haven’t already put ourselves in that position. Anyway, we’re more likely to run into problems when word reaches King Ivan that I’ve ordered all of my troops to defensive alert. If we’re right about how much information is leaking across the border to him, he may know by tomorrow.”
WHEN THEY LEFT THE common room to head to their own apartments, Linnea made it to her door, but then paused and turned back around, heading the other way down the hall. A second later, Thomas appeared at her elbow.
“I can’t get rid of you, can I?”
“I would be failing in my big-brotherly duties if you could. Besides, I want to know the answer, too.”
James was in front of Quinn and William’s door – literally blocking it with his body. He shook his head when Linnea and Thomas approached. “Their Majesties are not to be disturbed in their room if it isn’t an emergency.”
For a moment, Linnea hesitated. She was proud of Quinn for setting a boundary and enforcing it.
Thomas was apparently even more impatient for an answer than she was, though. “They only just went in there, James. Will you at least ask them if we could meet with them for a moment?”
James frowned. Sensing his indecision, Linnea added her own, “Please?”
“Stand over there – both of you.” He pointed to a spot far enough down the hall that they wouldn’t be able to see the inside of Quinn and William’s room if they opened the door.
William did open it, and after a brief conversation with James she couldn’t hear, he waved them in.
“I do like the security,” Thomas said once they were in the sitting room.
“Yeah, us too,” Quinn said from her spot on the couch where she was feeding Samuel. “What’s going on?”
There was no reason to avoid getting to the point. “Are you thinking about sending me and Thomas back to Eirentheos?”
William’s mouth popped open at her question, but Quinn looked at the floor.
“No,” Linnea said. “That’s not an option.”
“It was only one possibility Marcus and I discussed. If things get too dangerous, it’s something we should consider, Linnea.”
“And what? Leave you here to deal with the danger by yourselves? Absolutely not.”
“It’s my danger. It’s my kingdom. I’m the one who needs to deal with this. It’s bad enough I’m dragging William into it.”
“Dragging me?” William cleared his throat. “Last I checked, Quinn, I made my own decision to be here – my own
“So did I,” Thomas said.
“Me too. Queen or not Quinn, you don’t get to pick what the rest of us are willing to fight for.”
“You’re pregnant, Nay.”
“Yes, with a child whose father died in service to this kingdom, whose entire family has been dedicated to the protection of
for generations. This is what I chose when I married Ben – this is the legacy I intend for our child to inherit. Don’t ask me to dishonor that.”
Thomas sat down on the table in front of her. “That prophecy, Quinn? It might not have been real in some ways, but it was in the way that counts – you and William and Samuel – you united our kingdoms. When you did that, you got us too, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not
Quinn was silent for several moments, looking at all of them and then down at the sleeping infant in her arms. “Fine. Stay. Fight. But the next time you try to make me cry at this hour of the night, there will be consequences.”
“It’s not that late you know,” Thomas said, grinning as he stood and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. “There’s at least an hour left where it’s permissible for us to make you feel loved. I’ve got more.”
“Go. We’ll see you both in the morning.”
When they were far enough down the hall to be out of earshot of James, Linnea turned to her brother. “It goes for you, too. Don’t ask me, don’t even make a suggestion. Not now and not ever.”
* * *
Zander sat bolt upright from a dead slumber. His heart was galloping faster than the horse he’d been dreaming about riding. The room was still pitch black, although he hadn’t even managed to get his curtains closed before passing out a few hours before.
It wasn’t the dream that had woken him, though. It was the thought he’d had just as it ended, in that space between consciousness and sleep.
He didn’t bother to light any lamps, instead feeling his way to the chair where he’d thrown his clothes last night before his bath, and running his fingers quickly through his hair to straighten it, unsure whether it was damp now from being washed or from sweat.
Not that it mattered. As soon as he’d pulled his boots on, he hurried to the door and started jogging down the dark hallway toward William and Quinn’s room.
He only made it a few feet before a subtle noise behind him made him stop in his tracks and spin around, cursing himself for not having his sword, or even the small knife he normally wore strapped around his calf.
“Who’s there?” he called.
“That depends. Who are
He sighed, not sure whether to be relieved or livid. “It’s Zander, Prince Jonathan. I didn’t think you were returning until the morning.”
“I wasn’t originally, but I need to speak with Her Majesty urgently.”
“So do I.”
“About what?” Though he’d recognized the voice of Quinn’s uncle immediately, he noticed now that it was thick and rough, making Zander wonder if he’d been running. Whatever the reason, it was making Zander’s panic more intense.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to discuss it with Qu—with Her Majesty.”
“And if it’s not all the same to me? You’ve intrigued me now, Sir Zander. Tell me what you’ve figured out.”
Zander didn’t know Jonathan well at all. He didn’t know whether Quinn’s youngest uncle was trustworthy or not, and right now, with the revelation he’d just had, he wasn’t feeling trusting toward
. He wasn’t entirely sure it mattered … Jonathan’s hand hovered dangerously near his hilt, and Zander was sure he wouldn’t have been a match for the man even if he
Besides, Jonathan was here, in the castle, wanting to talk to Quinn, instead of several hours away with Sophia – a fact which only made Zander more confident about his suspicions.
He swallowed hard but took a chance. “I realized that this is a very …
time for Sophia to be so far away from the castle.”
“And now I see why Her Majesty was so quick to circumvent the normal process for assigning a guard in training to such a high position within the castle. Let’s go, Sir Zander. We haven’t got much time.” He said the last part with his back already to Zander as he hurried down the hall.
“It’s an emergency, James,” he called when they were still several yards from the door. “Wake both Quinn and William, please. Is your father asleep?”
“You’ll need to wake him.”
“I’ll wait and see what Their Majesties have to say.”
“Yes, all right. Just wake them.”
William answered the door so quickly that Zander was fairly certain he hadn’t been sleeping. When he followed Jonathan into their sitting room, he saw why: Quinn stood in the doorway to the bedroom holding a bright-eyed baby.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Quinn…” Jonathan’s voice was still rough – from more than just exercise, Zander realized. “I don’t have time to explain everything – we have hardly any time at all. You – all of you – are in danger, and we need to get you out of the castle
“What do you mean? What kind of danger?”
“An attack on the castle – before dawn.”
Quinn closed her eyes. “Tolliver?”
“Can we mount a counter-attack?” Zander asked. “Kill him now?”
“He won’t actually be here. I don’t know where he is, but they don’t plan on sending him until the castle is secure. Dovelnia has dedicated several hundred troops – they’ve been in the kingdom for weeks. Some of them for moons. It’s incredibly organized, Quinn. I can’t believe we didn’t see any of it.”
“It’s three in the morning now,” William said.
“Yes. Get dressed.”
Quinn took several steps toward Jonathan, handing the baby to William as she walked. She looked into his eyes, scrutinizing his face before asking the question Zander was so desperate to know the answer to. “Can I trust you, Jonathan?”
He steepled his fingers, placing them against his lips. “I can’t make that decision for you, Your Majesty. My only answer is that right now, tonight, even in this castle, there are very few people you
trust, but if you don’t count me as one of them, you’re unlikely to survive until tomorrow, at least not outside of a cell.”
She nodded, looking at James. “Can you please get Thomas and Linnea, Nathaniel, and Mia, Marcus, and your father? Who else can I trust, Jonathan?”
He shook his head. “There are several you can, Quinn. It was wise to assign those you knew were Friends of Philip to the most sensitive tasks. I think we can trust the guards in the stables and at the entrances tonight – at least the entrance I used. But we need to get out of here while drawing as little attention as possible, even amongst those you trust. If we travel with too large a group tonight…”
“I can’t leave them here! Many of them are Friends of Philip! It won’t be safe.”
“They’ll manage, Your Majesty,” James said, stepping back through the door. “This is what we’ve dealt with – the kind of situation we’re prepared for. We can get a message back to them once you and the prince are safe.”