The king watched through his telescope for several more moments, then turned to walk toward the tent where his map of troop movements was laid out. From the corner of his eye he saw a dark shadow pass before the morning sun, and looked up to see Wayland Smith standing on the east edge of the camp, just beyond the king’s own tent. His dark clothes and wide-brimmed hat seemed to harken back to another age.
The Wayfarer started toward Hunyadi and not a single one of the King’s Guard moved to stop him. They did not even seem to notice him.
Hunyadi forced himself not to shudder. He felt grateful Smith was an ally; he would make a deadly enemy.
The king went into his tent. A moment later, Smith followed him inside. The Wayfarer rested on his cane—an affectation, the king thought, for he did not believe Smith needed it—and inclined his head.
“Good morning, Your Majesty.”
“And to you, Mister Smith.”
“Your brave men and women performed admirably today.”
“They do, as ever,” the king said. In moments like this, he wished he were back in Perinthia. Better yet, he longed to return to his summer residence at Otranto, where he could drink ale with the local men and spend his days fishing in the lake or riding his mare, Nadia, in the hills.
Wayland Smith held up his cane and studied its fox head as though he had never seen it before.
“You come with news, I presume?” the king prompted him.
“Some of each variety, in fact.”
Hunyadi studied him, curious now.
“It will please you to learn that the Legend-Born have escaped.”
The king stared, a smile spreading across his features. “Truly?”
Smith nodded. “I received word from the Mazikeen. Frost and Collette Bascombe crossed the Veil. Oliver and Miss Whitney are on the run in Palenque.”
“We’ve got to help them—”
“If they can be helped, they will be. There are many voices, eyes, and hands doing your work in Palenque now, John. You need to remain focused on driving the invaders back. The Atlantean troops will not be so easily beaten.”
The king glanced toward the battlefield. From inside the tent, he could see nothing of the melee, but he could picture its savagery in his mind.
“Nothing easy about it, Smith.”
“It’s going to get more difficult.”
Hunyadi frowned, a knot of ice in his gut. “You said Atlantean troops?”
Smith nodded. When he looked up, a storm brewed in his gray eyes. “Difficult news, but not unexpected. This morning, the newspapers in Yucatazca announced an alliance between their government and the High Council of Atlantis. There are statements from Prince Tzajin. Falsified, we must presume, for he remains in Atlantis. The High Council promises to send at least three full divisions of Atlantean army forces to the Isthmus of the Conquistadors before the week is out, to aid in the war against you. Of course, they continue to claim it is only justice, since you broke the Truce by having Tzajin’s father assassinated.”
Hunyadi scowled. “Ty’Lis is quite the puppeteer.”
“It is not merely Ty’Lis,” Smith replied. “He answers to the High Council. He’s little more than a puppet himself.”
“How can you be sure of all of this? Are we certain that Prince Tzajin is under their control? It may be that he is in league with Atlantis. I have little faith to put in anyone of late, I fear.”
For the first time, Wayland Smith seemed less than sure of himself. “The High Council must be commanding Ty’Lis, or they wouldn’t have struck this alliance. They wouldn’t be sending an invasion force. As to the prince, why would he turn on his father? Mahacuhta was not a young man. If Tzajin wanted power, he only had to wait for the old man to die.”
“Youth can be so impatient,” Hunyadi replied.
Smith lowered his head, the brim of his hat obscuring his face.
“Perhaps it is time you paid a visit to Atlantis,” said the king. “I know you’d rather not involve yourself any more than you have to, Mister Smith, but with Atlantis revealing themselves and declaring open war, knowledge of what the High Council is planning may be the difference between the destruction of the Two Kingdoms and survival. And if Atlantis prevails, the Veil will be sealed forever. You know that is their intention.”
The Wayfarer knitted his brows. He stared at the ground and then met the king’s gaze with much consternation.
“I am not a soldier, John. I am not in your service.”
“No. But you are a friend and ally, Smith,” Hunyadi replied. “If nothing else, we need to know if Prince Tzajin is collaborating with Atlantis, or if he is held against his will. The answer might well be the way to trump the High Council. If Yucatazca could be turned against Atlantis…”
He did not have to finish the thought.
“Understood,” Wayland Smith said. “I will return.”
Hunyadi watched him leave the tent, cane in hand. A moment later, he followed, but the Wayfarer was gone, as though he had never been there at all.
Oliver woke to the warmth of Julianna’s body pressed against him. For several moments, her nearness was all he knew. Then, in a rush, other stimuli crowded into his mind. His neck itched. The air was warm and close, and filled with the smells of hay and horseshit and leather. A horse snorted and he opened his eyes.
He found himself spooned against Julianna in a nest of hay they’d found before dawn. For hours they had slipped from one hiding place to another, moving through alleys and hiding under wagons and underneath the tables on taverna patios to avoid being seen. Ty’Lis might not have many soldiers still in Palenque, but there were enough. They would be hunting the escapees. And if the Lost Ones in the city hadn’t heard yet, they would learn as soon as morning arrived.
With dawn approaching, they had made it perhaps half the distance to the edge of the city. They had to find a place to hide out for the day where they might have a chance of going undiscovered. Homes and shops would not do. As the sky began to lighten, Oliver and Julianna even considered a dark alley where a carriage had been abandoned, thinking to hide underneath it. But then, not far away, they had come upon a large building that combined a stable and tack shop. The rear windows of the stable had been open to let in fresh air, and it had been a simple enough thing to sneak inside.
Exhausted and filthy, they had climbed into the loft and laid down together. There had been some talk about taking turns staying awake, and Oliver had taken first watch. But lying there with Julianna snuggled up against him—perhaps the most sublime moment of his life—had been too seductive.
Now sunlight streamed in the windows below. He shifted slightly and saw bits of dust and hay dancing in the shafts of light. Oliver nuzzled the back of Julianna’s neck and kissed her ear. They had survived. From the angle of the light, he guessed it was late morning. The days lasted longer on this side of the Veil, so it was possible they’d had as much as five hours’ sleep. That would have to do. They couldn’t leave here until dark, but they needed to be vigilant, now.
He kissed Julianna’s neck. With her in his arms, he felt hopeful, even peaceful, for the first time in so long. He wished for a shower and clean clothes and a soft bed upon which to make love to his fiancée. But all of those things would come, in time. First, they had a war to fight. Whatever this power was that he and Collette had, the legend said it came with a destiny. But at the moment that was the least of his concerns.
More awake, now, he discovered an ache in his neck and in his lower back. He reached up and wiped the grit of sleep from his eyes. Julianna made a soft moan of complaint, still mostly asleep, and nestled back against him.
With a clank and a long creak, someone opened the door.
His heart raced. He laid his head down, then froze, not wanting to rustle a single piece of hay. Voices carried up to the loft. They had been lucky so far. When he’d woken and realized they had not been discovered, he had begun to think the tack shop was closed for the day. Someone would come to tend to the horses, of course, but the city would be on edge. He had dared to think the fact that they hadn’t been disturbed yet meant they would be all right.
Julianna took a deep breath and let it out. Slowly, her eyes fluttered open.
“Sweetie, listen,” Oliver whispered in her ear, hoping the men’s conversation and the stamping and chuffing of the horses down below would cover his voice. “We’re not alone.”
She stiffened against him, and glanced back to meet his eyes. Together, they lay there and listened. The men spoke in the local language, or some other Yucatazcan tongue. Oliver didn’t understand a word, and he knew Julianna wouldn’t, either. He heard two voices and hoped there were only two men. If they were discovered and had to fight, they might be able to overcome them. If worse came to worst, he could bring down half the barn. But where would that leave them? On the streets of Palenque in broad daylight.
He held his breath, heart pounding in his chest. Hay prickled his neck and arms. The men laughed together and he could hear them moving around below. Something shifted, and from the sounds he realized that the horses were being fed. So they weren’t soldiers. That was one piece of luck, at least. They weren’t Ty’Lis’s warriors, out hunting for the escaped prisoners.
One of the men snapped angrily at the other. Though Oliver didn’t understand the words, he gathered this was a command of some sort, and perhaps an admonishment as well. The other replied with a placating voice…that began moving closer.
Julianna stared up at him, desperation in her eyes. He read the question there, but didn’t have an answer.
Then he heard the creak of wood and saw the top of the ladder that came up into the loft shift slightly as the man began to climb. Oliver took a long, silent breath. It had all been too good to be true. They would have to fight, now, or risk being discovered.
His eyes narrowed and he stared at the top of the ladder. Julianna saw his intentions and she began to move, as slowly and quietly as she could. Oliver did the same. The men had stopped talking to one another and surely any moment the one climbing the ladder would hear them. But nothing could be done. If they tried to bury themselves in hay, he would hear them for sure.
Eight feet away, a pitchfork leaned against a tower of hay bales.
Oliver rose into a crouch.
The ladder shook and creaked.
He saw the top of the man’s head—black hair powdered with gray—and then he bolted for the pitchfork. The man shouted in surprise. Julianna went over the side of the loft, hung by her hands, and dropped. Oliver could not think about what she was doing, only that she was in motion. Their lives depended upon one another.
His hands closed around the pitchfork and he swung it up, its tines pointed at the man who now stood at the top of the ladder. The man’s eyes were wide and frightened, and whatever he said must have been a curse or a prayer. Oliver gestured with the pitchfork and the man leaned against the edge of the loft for balance and raised his hands as though he were being robbed.
“Ixchel!” the other man shouted from below.
Oliver moved closer to the edge. He saw the second man—rotund, with a dramatic mustache—coming out from one of the stalls. Julianna appeared, then, from beneath the loft. Relief washed through Oliver; she was unharmed from her drop. Then he saw the leather bridle in her hand.
The man on the ladder glanced from his friend to Oliver. A stream of words came from his mouth. One of them, Oliver felt sure, was “Bascombe,” and it formed part of a question.
Oliver nodded. For better or worse, he would never again deny his identity. He was his mother’s son, and his father’s as well.
The man smiled, which threw him off.
Down below, his friend began to shout at Julianna. She started to swing the bridle in her hand. Oliver realized what he saw—a tall but thin woman, pretty, no threat to him. And perhaps he was right. Julianna could defend herself, but this was a large man, used to working with his hands.
“Jules, don’t!” he called. “Keep away from him.”
The man on the ladder—perhaps “Ixchel” had been his name—turned and called down to the other. In the stream of words, he heard his own last name again, more than once. The way he said it, it seemed he thought it would calm the other man, but instead the man spat on the ground and shouted something. Oliver could imagine what it was. “Assassin,” perhaps, or “murderer.” Ty’Lis had all of the Two Kingdoms believing Oliver had killed King Mahacuhta.
“Hey,” he said to the man on the ladder. “I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill him. Atlantis is your enemy, not us.”
With a shout, the rotund man rushed at Julianna. Silently, she sidestepped and whipped him in the face with the bridle. He cried out and reached toward his eyes. She swung it again, slapping his hands away, and then she backpedaled.
Furious, the man kept after her.
On the ladder, Ixchel called to him. Then he glanced at Oliver with regret, and started to hurry down the ladder.
“Hey. Wait! Stop!” Oliver shouted, but the thin, graying stablehand had already dropped out of sight.
“Shit,” he snarled.
Only one thing to do.
“Jules!” he called.
She spared a quick glance over her shoulder. As she did, Oliver dropped the pitchfork. It landed half a dozen feet away from her and Julianna raced for it, snatching it up and turning it on her pursuer.
Oliver went over the side. He dangled for just a second, glancing down to make sure he wouldn’t break a leg, then dropped. The impact jarred him, and he went down hard on his ass. He scrambled to his feet and turned, almost at the same moment that Ixchel reached the bottom of the ladder.
But the stablehand barely looked at him. He started toward his friend, hands in front of him, and an argument began between them. Ixchel, incredibly, seemed to be telling the other man to back off. Both men grew more and more insistent.