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The Captive Kingdom, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

The smile remained, but something in her eyes was frozen. “In exchange, I will agree not to sink the ship. Your crewmen will be given the option to join my crew, rather than to be left out here to die a slow and miserable death.”

  I shrugged. “Serving on your crew is already a slow and miserable death, I’m sure. Jaron will be sent over to you, and you will depart with him immediately. No one else.”

  Strick gestured toward one of her men, a round-faced bulge of flesh who seemed to be built of rock embedded in mud. I immediately named him Lump. In turn, he lifted a long strip of wood with a lip on both sides to attach it to both ships.

  “Prepare to be boarded,” Strick said.

  Erick looked at me. “I can only give you an extra second or two, but you must take it.”

  I started toward him. “No, don’t!” But it was too late.

  Erick crossed directly in front of the gangplank, raising his sword. “Not one of you is getting on this ship while there is life left in me.”

  Strick smiled again. “As you wish.” And with a wave of her hand, another arrow was fired, striking Erick directly in the chest. Time seemed to freeze as he gasped, dropped his sword, then fell to the ground.

  I felt the hit as if I had taken it myself, and pain immediately filled me. In a panic, I knelt beside him, pressing my hand to the wound. I yelled to any pirate who might hear me, “Get a rag!”

  But Erick put his hands over mine and lifted them from his chest. “Forgive me,” he said. “Forgive me … Sage.”

  “Sage?” the captain echoed.

  I looked up and saw that Strick had already crossed the gangplank and was crouched above us, listening in. “Is that your name, boy? Sage?”

  Without a word I stood as she jumped to the deck, ordering two of her men who had followed her across, “Toss this body overboard. It’s depressing to see it.”

  I pushed between them, shaking my head. “He deserves a proper burial.”

  One of the men — a brute with a shock of red hair — shoved me aside, knocking me to the deck. “At sea, this is as proper a burial as he might get.”

  “Will that be enough of a burial, when I’m finished with you?” I asked, earning myself a kick.

  The other man lifted Erick’s body beneath the arms and began dragging him to the aft side of the deck while the captain walked forward, taking herself on a tour. I remained where I was.

  “This is a pirate ship?” she asked. “Are you one of the pirates, Sage?”


  “You must forgive me for interrupting your pleasant evening.”

  “I don’t forgive; I stab.”

  “With this sword?” She snapped her fingers and a Prozarian I had not noticed before stepped forward, with my sword in his filthy hands, an insult I tolerated only because I had no other choice. “Do you claim this?”

  “That’s a fine sword, but this does not mean Jaron is on this ship.”

  “We traced him to Bymar a week ago. The port master we spoke to informed us this was the ship Prince Jaron is supposed to be on.”

  “I know that port master. He’s older than these waters. I wouldn’t trust his word.”

  “I trust every word given on one’s deathbed.”

  A shudder ran through me. The port master was in good health when we left Bymar. If he was on his deathbed, it was because Captain Strick put him there.

  She returned my sword to the filthy Prozarian, along with instructions to take it to her office. Then she pressed her lips together and stared at me. “You will produce Jaron on this deck in the next five seconds, or this ship will be boarded, searched, and then sunk.”

  I let out a slow breath and closed my eyes, trying to prepare myself for whatever might happen next. She had killed Erick without flinching, so I had no doubt she would carry out these new threats. I stood and squared myself to her. “I’m Jaron. Take me.”

  “No, I’m Jaron.” Roden raced up the stairs, sword in hand. “Take me.”

  “No, I’m Jaron.” Tobias followed him exactly, except his sword was held upside down. “Take me.”

  Strick lifted her hand, curling the fingers toward her. And one by one, Prozarians began crossing onto our ship.

  A century ago, no army in the known world was more feared than the Prozarians. Their interest wasn’t occupation of any territory they conquered, but rather, they bled the land of its resources and wealth before abandoning it like ashes from a spent fire. Eventually, countries began to unite for their own defense, laying aside old grudges to target a common enemy. Over time, the Prozarians themselves became the spent fire, the topic of history books and stories shared by aging soldiers in dark taverns. By the time I was a child, nobody spoke of the Prozarians anymore.

  I suspected that was about to change.

  These next Prozarians to board our ship were heavily armed, and each carried a length of rope. I bolted for the quarterdeck but ran straight into a fist that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Behind me, Roden was keeping up a fair fight until we heard a cry from Tobias and saw a knife raised against him. For his sake, we had no choice but to give in.

  Little mercy was shown in the way we were thrown against the side railing and searched for weapons. Our arms were yanked behind our backs as each of our hands were tied. The man behind me must’ve thought he was clever for double knotting my binds. I even told him so, though my compliment also came with commentary on his rancid breath that earned me a third hit. His work wasn’t so clever after all. He wasn’t halfway back to the captain before I was through the first knot.

  “Search below,” the captain shouted, and my heart slammed into my throat.

  “Where are the others?” I whispered.

  “Creating a distraction,” Roden said.

  “No, those were not my orders.”

  “Imogen says since she’s marrying you, she is not subject to any of your orders.”

  She wanted to make that an issue now? Imogen had a general resentment of the term “orders.”

  “What is the distraction?” I asked.

  Tobias carefully looked around us before whispering, “She opened a porthole and discovered she could reach the lifeboat. She planned to release it.”

  “With who on it?”

  Roden shrugged. “You.”

  A few of the Prozarians who had been belowdecks now pounded back up the steps, shouting, “Captain, the prince is escaping!”

  From my position, I wasn’t able to see, but Imogen must have done a decent job creating some humanlike figure in the lifeboat, for I heard a string of curses, then the captain ordering those crewmen back onto the Shadow Tide to prepare for pursuit.

  Yet no sooner had they crossed back over the gangplank than an explosion came from the direction Captain Strick had just been looking. Not an explosion, really. It was more like a pop or a thump, unimpressive enough that the entire ship of Prozarians burst into laughter.

  I angled onto one knee to see what had caused the laughter and it was well deserved. The figure that should have been me was blown onto its side, revealing it to be nothing but a bucket with an oar for a back, and clothes stuffed around it.

  The captain turned to look at us, still seated on the deck. I only shrugged. “Jaron loved to experiment with explosives. So much so that everyone believed one day he’d blow himself up.”

  “That wasn’t enough to frighten a fly,” the captain said. “If that’s the best they can do, we have nothing to fear.” Gesturing to us, she directed her crewmen, “Take these three onto the Shadow Tide and find a room that locks. Despite that little game, one of them is obviously the prince. The rest of you will continue to search this ship. Find something to persuade the real Jaron to confess.”

  I stood, having undone my ropes. “Captain, I am Jaron.”

  “The pirate we killed called you Sage.”

  Roden and Tobias stood simultaneously, each of them still bound but claiming, “I am Jaron.”

  “Take them all,” she said. “I’ll sort th
em later.”

  One by one, we were walked over the gangplank but were made to stand on the main deck of the Shadow Tide while a place was prepared for us.

  I looked back on our ship, watching Prozarians carry up our bags, our weapons and food, Tobias’s medicines, and anything else they could take. So far, I’d seen none of our people. Were they all in hiding, or had something happened to them belowdecks? I was almost ill with worry.

  While quietly undoing their binds, I hissed to Roden and Tobias, “Let me identify myself as I am, or it will be worse when you’re found out.”

  “What happens to you when it’s found out?” Tobias asked. “We’re borrowing time until the three of us can figure out a plan.”

  Still on the Red Serpent, Captain Strick called out, “We intend to sink this ship. You may join my crew and serve me with loyalty, or you may go down with your ship. There are no other options.”

  After a pause, the pirates gradually began emerging from belowdecks. Most of them looked my way as they lined up to cross the gangplank. Some seemed apologetic, but others glared at me as if this was somehow my fault. Maybe it was, I still didn’t know.

  “Where’s Erick?” one of them shouted, but no one answered, and by the expressions on their faces, they were already figuring out the answer for themselves. Pirates were not easily deflated, and seeing it deepened the ache in my chest.

  They passed by Strick as they crossed over, muttering their required pledges of loyalty, and then seated themselves on the deck of the Shadow Tide, waiting for their next orders. I didn’t blame any of them. Not when their only alternative was death.

  “We found this one hiding behind a false wall,” a Prozarian called from below. Beside me, Tobias nearly fell to his knees when Amarinda was pushed up the steps, and my heart stood still. With eyes widened by fear, she briefly glanced over at us, then gave her attention to Captain Strick, who crossed directly in front of her.

  “How many of you were in hiding down there?” she asked.

  Amarinda’s brow creased. “I … I don’t know. I think I was the only one.”

  “If anyone else is hiding, they will regret it. You, my dear, are lucky you were found.” She personally escorted Amarinda across the gangplank, then shoved her into the arms of the man I had nicknamed Lump. “Take her to my office and tell Wilta to guard her. She’ll be safest there.”

  “Amarinda!” Tobias darted forward when she pushed away from Lump, but a man swatted him from behind, sending him to all fours. Tobias’s face twisted with what must have been a mighty sting across his lower back.

  Captain Strick flashed a sudden smile. “Is that her name? Amarinda? That’s a fine bit of luck.”

  “Let her go!” Tobias’s voice was almost a growl.

  “Prince Jaron is betrothed to a girl named Imogen. So you are not Jaron.” Her stare lifted to Roden and me. “That means he is one of you two.” She pointed to Tobias and ordered whoever happened to be around her, “Kill the third.”

  “Captain, wait!” I said. “His name is Tobias, and he’s a physician, or something close to it.”

  “You’ll need his help on a ship of this size,” Roden added.

  She looked him over. “He’s young.”

  “He’s just completed the exams to begin formal training.” I knew that because at supper a day ago, Tobias had prattled on about the exams for what felt like hours.

  She frowned at Tobias. “Will you pledge sole loyalty to me?”

  He straightened up. “I am loyal to Jaron, king of Carthya.”

  “No, he is loyal to you,” I said, turning to Tobias with a stern glare. “You are choosing loyalty to her.”

  “That is an order,” Roden finished, keeping up his imitation of me.

  Tobias nodded and stepped back, though he kept his eyes on me, almost as if he wanted to be ready when I found some miraculous escape. But there would be no escape. Not yet.

  Tobias was told to remain on the deck with the others while Roden and I were escorted to what appeared to be an officer’s quarters belowdecks. The room was cramped with a half-width bed against the far wall, and when the door locked behind us, we were completely sealed in.

  I rushed to the door and put my ear against it, hoping to hear anything useful. Roden did the same by balancing on the cot and trying to listen up to the main deck.

  There wasn’t much I could hear from my angle, only Prozarians darting from task to task and chuckling at what a simple conquest this had been.

  Roden seemed to be hearing more of value. He drew in a gasp, muttering, “They’ve found the crates. They’ve already begun bringing them on board.”

  The crates had been the jewel in our trading with the people of Bymar. After the recent war, Carthya’s weapons supplies were massively depleted, but our last crop of food had been excellent. Since Bymar was farther north, they needed food more than weapons. And we gladly traded for their weapons, five crates full of them.

  Now in the hands of the Prozarians.

  Since Roden was in a better position to hear, I began searching our room. I didn’t find much — a single stocking, a candle with enough wax for a few minutes of light, a mostly empty tinderbox. I pocketed the items with no particular use in mind for them, but as my only weapon was a small knife in my boot, everything I found had to be considered for its benefit.

  After another fifteen minutes, we heard nothing more. The ship seemed to have gone temporarily quiet.

  I looked at Roden. “Before you and Tobias came upstairs, what was the last you saw of everyone?”

  He shrugged. “I don’t know. Everything happened so fast. Mott sealed Amarinda in the hiding place, but once he finished, Fink said he forgot something on his bunk. Mott went to chase after him and never came back. When I last saw Imogen, she was preparing the lifeboat. Then Tobias and I ran upstairs. I don’t know how things ended for any of them.”

  “Could they still be on the —”

  My words were drowned out by the sound of cannon fire directly below us, all of it aimed in the direction the Red Serpent would have been. Even from within our small room, we distinctly heard the sounds of shattered wood, then the horrifying creaks of masts and beams as they fell to the deck, then silence.

  Not a true silence, but the terrible shrieking of a ship descending to its own watery grave. And I had no idea how many of my friends were going down with it.

  My thoughts flew apart and I felt like screaming aloud, but I had to think. I had to concentrate. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine any possible way that Mott, Imogen, and Fink might have survived, but nothing made sense. I leaned against the bulkhead and slowly sank to the floor.

  Erick was gone. And I had little reason to hope for the others.

  With that thought, my body forgot how to breathe, or stopped caring to.

  Last night, Imogen had told me that the moment she knew I needed time away from the castle was when she heard Roden and me fighting in one of the reception rooms.

  That day, I had somehow survived a meeting on the farming of oats, though I still wasn’t sure if it had lasted several hours, or several years. After a while, it made no difference. I had tried my best to fall asleep, in hopes that when I awoke, the lecture would be over. However, it turns out that when the king sleeps, the speaker merely pauses until someone wakes him up, and then prattles on as if nothing happened.

  The rest of the day was engraved in my mind. Roden had just entered the room when I told him, “Why don’t you manage this? You can be my minister of oats.”

  Roden didn’t even attempt a smile. “I’m already the captain of your guard, Jaron.”

  “Yes, but can you do both? I already made Tobias the minister of limiting boring people to no more than eight minutes, and you can see the task has overwhelmed him.”

  “I already told you that’s not a real job.” For most of the afternoon, Tobias had been reading at a table in the corner of the throne room. He merely rolled his eyes at Roden, then returned to his pages.
br />   “I can’t accept the position,” Roden said, “and we need to talk about the second. I am resigning.”

  I snorted. “No, you’re not.”

  “You may be king of Carthya, but you do not control the whole world —”

  “Not yet.”

  “— and you do not control me.” Roden faced me directly. “I will no longer be your captain.”

  My expression turned to stone. Without looking at anyone else, I ordered them, “Leave us.”

  The room emptied, except for Roden and me — and Tobias, who stayed too and was looking intently at me as a warning not to ruin everything. We all knew I probably would.

  Roden began, “Just now, I was passing by the council room for my senior officers. They were discussing a concern over a report of strangers in Carthya. Did you know about this?”

  “They told me yesterday.”

  “They didn’t tell me at all. Instead, they went straight to you!”

  “Well, I am king.”

  “And I’m their captain. They should have come to me first.”

  “Fine! Go tell them so.”

  “It wouldn’t matter. In that same conversation, my officers asked one another why you chose me as captain.” Roden folded his arms. “I know why. It was a bribe to get me away from the pirates. I would have killed you otherwise.”

  I brushed that off. “You wouldn’t have killed me, Roden. We were friends. You just didn’t know it yet.”

  “Friends?” He stepped forward. “It’s simple for you to say that from where you stand, at the top of the mountain. You can look down on those of us who serve you and call us friends, but really, we are just servants.”

  I stood, feeling my temper warm. “You serve me? Do you know how many times I have nearly died for this country? How many people are still lined up, wanting my life?”

  “You’ve become paranoid.” He gestured around him. “When will you stop believing that the whole world is against you?”

  “When I have evidence otherwise. Until then, I’ll do what I deem is best. You have no idea what it is to be king.”

  He pointed to me. “And you have no idea what it is to serve a king, to serve you.”