June curled on her side in the warm sand. It felt like her left cheekbone had swollen to the size of a bullfrog—it throbbed.
“You’re a terrible kisser,” the prisoner repeated. A shadow darkened behind her eyelids. She opened her eyes to the end of a silver cutlass. Chambers stood over her. He staved the tip beneath her chin with a straight arm. It poked into her neck. She looked up at him with hands raised. His green eyes bulged wildly from his face.
“You saved my life, just to put me to death?” Chambers asked. A strand of brown hair stuck to the corner of his mouth. “And I thought I was cold.” He overturned the cutlass on his pointer finger and dangled the hilt in front of her face. She snatched it, then pointed the blade up at him. Shining ringlets from the pool waved across his face.
“Relax… I’m leaving.”
She got to her feet. They maintained eye contact as he walked around the outside of the pool, ducking under the orange roots.
“You’re not going anywhere.” She pulled the tunic back over her torso and stepped back into her pants. He was gone. “Wait.” She pulled her boot up the back of her heel and pushed out through the vines. Air was cooler out on the riverbank. And dryer. Pink motes of pollen were carried from left to right along the current. “Where did you go?” Pink and orange light shined around the curve of the bank. The chapel ramparts came back into sight, lit in the embers of orange flames sinking into the ground—it had stayed burning all night. Only the front wall stood under its own weight. The mules stood with their ears pinned back on their heads; the caravan was a charred black skeleton behind them.
An arm swung around her neck. Stubble scratched against her cheek. The forearm crushed into her throat and lifted her off the dirt; she could only look down as droplets of water fell from her boots. Vertebrae in her neck cracked with three awful sounds. She swung her feet wildly and kicked behind her. A hand squeezed her wrist and turned her fist downwards. She dropped the cutlass. Her feet were back on the ground and blood came back to her face as she sucked air. Her arm was twisted behind her back and a cannonball shaped bicep smothered her mouth. She was promenaded through the clearing and out to the trail. The chariot’s black wood arched like a proud eagle’s chest as she marched under the forecastle. Two savage bears—the fabled bruins of children’s night terrors—snarled in her direction. Gory brown enamel dulled the blue glow of their antlers.
“Found the little wench.” a grizzled voice said beside her ear. “No sign of Chambers.”
The eloquent voice of Jimmy Gallows rang from the unseen acoustics inside the cabin.
That rat bastard Chester Hemlock sat inside the cabin. His eyes grazed over her, like she were some yard sale he was uninterested in.
“Perhaps she should be stowed with the others, Hightower,” Hemlock suggested.
June locked her legs at the knees, entrenching her heels in the dirt. Hightower slammed her against the starboard panels, pushing her face against the hardwood. He cranked her head to the left with a massive hand.
“You see that?” Hightower grumbled in her ear. Freya was unconscious in the grass at the feet of the bears. “She didn’t want to get in either.” June let him push her towards the back of the caravan. “That’s a good girl.”
The metal steps moaned beneath her boots as she stepped into the barred cart hitched behind the chariot. In the corner of the cage, Kensington sat against the wall with his elbows on his knees and hands on his mouth. Slats of light fell between the bars and crooked across his body, so that only pink shreds of him could be seen in the shadows.
“You’re foolish for coming back.” Kensington spoke through fingers buried in his face.
“Where’s my brother?” she asked.
Sheriff didn’t answer. Just the two of them were in the cell. Kensington jumped to his feet and grabbed a set of bars, shaking himself against them like a madman. His blonde hair fell loose at the back, frazzling hysterically around his head. A small black hairpin fell to the floor with a clink; June knelt down and pinched it between her fingers.
“We can spring ourselves free from this cage,” she whispered.
“I’m afraid that would be treason,” Gallows spoke from outside, his hands clasped behind his back. She scowled at the slender, straight postured figure. Even up in the cart, she was eye to eye with him. The hooded black pelt dusted along the leaves as Gallows walked with royal pageantry. Gallows tilted the skull to rest backwards on his shoulders, revealing his face through the cloak’s fanged jaw.
Blue eyes looked at her. Powdered white locks draped down the temples of the face and rested on the red suede of his collar. Her reflection stared back at her in the crown’s carbuncle jewels. He had the same unamused look as he did on the penny. She knelt, mechanically, to King James Gallant the Third. With staggered breath she stared down at bruised knuckles on the floorboards.
“Ah,” his highness exclaimed. “Even now, she upholds ever faith in the Kingdom. Librae needs more like you, girl—who put country above self. Now, answer me, where is Chambers?”
She fumbled for the words.
“I tried to bring—all the way from Hastings—Chambers to you, your Highness. I acted in your name, your Highness, always in your name, your Highness.”
Gallant pursed his lips. He looked younger, less weathered than the paintings in church.
“Where is Chambers… now?”
“If I may permission to inquire, your Highness,” she sputtered, “as to why you’re wearing the garb of Jimmy Gallows?”
Gallant stood, assessing them with pensive eyes, the same noble figure painted on the front of her bedside prayer book. She’d blessed his name every night and each morning. She’d sworn oaths to his name. Gallant clenched the broadsword right where the smithed metal of the blade was fixed into the natural lumber of the hilt.
“Where… is… Chambers…now?” Gallant asked.
“Somewhere around these woods. I was just with him when you—erm—arrested me.”
His eyes whipped off her.
She stared into his crown, remembering an oath she signed when becoming a citizen of the continent. The oath was stamped with a wax seal of authenticity, neatly slid inside an envelope, and submitted to the Kingdom on her fifth birthday. The oath read that she would “never disobey the King’s commands—”she was trapped within the wording“—upon her death.”
“Sit,” the King said.