A Draw of Kings
Author:Patrick W. Carr



    DEEP WITHIN, ADORA CONTINUED to harbor the possibility that her uncle, King Rodran, might still live, but the pallid faces of those on the ship, especially Errol’s, refuted all hope.

    As always, Errol’s presence drew her gaze as a lodestone drew iron, and the thought of him made her acutely aware of herself: the feel of her hair against her face, the way the fabric of her clothes caressed her skin as she moved, the warmth of her blood pulsing through her veins.

    She resisted the urge to scan the deck for him. He would be at the stern, close to the rail. Seasickness, dosed at intervals by Tek’s store of zingiber root, kept him at the rear of the ship, away from her bout with Rokha.

    Knees flexed, Adora attempted to distribute her weight as evenly between front foot and back as skill and practice could contrive. Tucking a contrary strand of her golden blond hair behind one ear, she sighted along the wooden staves that served as her practice sword and circled her opponent, searching for an opening that didn’t exist.

    The wind, bitter with cold and grief, carried the tang of salt to where she stood. When she wet her lips, the taste of decay beneath the flavor of the waters of the Beron Strait filled her mouth. Errol’s majority was still less than a year in his past, yet she, the only princess of Illustra, wavered between desiring his protection and wanting to safeguard him in turn. She started to laugh but held it back.

    “Is something funny, Princess?” Rokha asked. Naaman Ru’s raven-haired daughter stood two paces from her, a practice sword tracing lazy circles, like a snake waiting to strike. Her dark eyes, which usually blazed with hawklike intensity, were limned with smudges of grief and fatigue over the death of her father. Only the presence of Merodach, the watchman Rokha loved, managed to kindle her customary fire.

    Adora moved to her right, testing her footing on the deck through her soft-soled boots. “Yes. I don’t know whether to protect him or kiss him. He may be the strangest man I’ve ever met.”

    Rokha’s soft chuckle misted the air. “You’ve led a sheltered life on your isle, Princess. The women of Basquon will tell you all men are strange—and they speak the truth—but mostly they are all strange in the same way. Errol is odd in his strangeness. He’s seen more in the past year than most men could boast in a lifetime and has saved the kingdom twice under a burden that would crush most men, yet he still seems a boy in many ways.”

    The princess basked in the knowledge that Errol was hers before allowing a sigh to whisper from her lips. “The kingdom hardly treats him like a hero.”

    Rokha’s dark eyes flared, making her resemble a bird of prey even more than usual. “They made him bait for Illustra’s enemies.” She spat across the deck. “There is steel in that man of yours that surprises even me.” Rokha’s full lips parted in a grin, and she chuckled deep in her throat. “And he has other skills, Princess. His lips are soft and his kisses stirring for one so young.”

    Adora knew this trick—it was Rokha’s favorite—but even so, a spasm of jealous anger broke her concentration for an instant before she could suppress it, and in that moment Rokha struck. The clack of swords sounded in a desperate staccato before Rokha landed a blow on Adora’s shoulder. Again.

    Adora held up a hand, flexed the arm. “That is a cheap trick.”

    Mirth melted away from Ru’s daughter. “In battle there is alive and there is dead. That is all, Princess.”

    She shook her head in denial. “And how many will know to use Errol against me that way?”

    “More than you think. You haven’t made your love of him a secret. That was foolish.”

    For a moment she bristled, but the truth of Rokha’s words couldn’t be denied. She’d been rash—first to follow him, then to proclaim her love in Basquon. “He needs me, Rokha. How much can one person suffer?”

    Rokha nodded. “True. I thought the priest’s confession had broken him.”

    A fist closed around Adora’s heart at the memory of Martin’s revelations, how they had drained the life from Errol’s eyes. She had never seen anyone still breathing appear so dead, yet some inspiration or circumstance in Merakh had restored him.

    He smiled readily now, but Adora did not find herself reassured by his new, easy familiarity. Raised at court, she’d learned early to read the gestures and expressions nobles, churchmen, and courtiers used to hide the secrets locked within their hearts. Errol’s dimpled smile held everything she’d once desired from him—warmth, affection, and love—but behind the deep cerulean of his eyes lurked a secret. She did not trust secrets, not with Errol, not after Martin stabbed her through the heart by announcing either Errol or Liam must die. She fumed, angry at her inability to pry Errol’s plan from his lips.

    The ship entered King’s Port to the sound of Amos Tek calling for less sail. The captain maneuvered his charge past a pair of high-decked cogs manned by guards with crossbows.

    Adora stumbled, her concern over Errol forgotten. Gusts of wind lifted oiled cloaks, revealing the livery of the men on those ships, men who should have been wearing the red of kingdom guards. Instead, each wore royal blue with a slash of white across the chest. Duke Weir’s colors. And the ships were closing in. She searched the royal compound on the cliffs above, darted a glance over the port rail, and hurried to starboard. The harbor swarmed with ships, all manned by sailors in those same colors. King’s Port was blockaded.

    What had happened?

    She spun, making for the broad steps that led below, intent on warning Martin and the rest. They met her halfway, Karele and Rale in the lead. Their pinched expressions told Adora they too had seen Weir’s men. They stampeded past her, heading back toward Amos Tek, drawing her in their wake.

    On the aft deck, Martin peppered Tek with questions. “What’s the meaning of this, Captain? Those are Weir’s men.”

    Tek rolled his shoulders, but the planes of his face, grown hard at the sight of the blockade, belied the casual gesture. “They’ve bottled up the harbor, right enough.”

    Martin rubbed a beefy hand across his jowls. “A precaution?”

    Tek shook his head. “I doubt it, by the sea, I do. There are other ships entering the harbor without attracting this attention.”

    Errol came forward from his spot on the rail. He brushed his fingers across Adora’s cheek in passing, and the sensation brought warmth and chills to her skin.

    “They know who we are,” he said. “By now the conclave and the Judica realize we’ve survived the trip to Merakh.”

    Luis nodded his agreement. Martin turned to face Karele, head of the solis, one of those who claimed to hear Aurae, the spirit of Deas. “How were they able see us?”

    If the presence of Weir’s ships bothered Karele, the little man gave no sign. His large brown eyes remained calm, and no hint of alarm showed on his sharp features. “For some reason, Aurae has allowed us to be discovered.”

    “Why?” The question crackled in the air before Adora fully realized she’d asked it. A thread of panic wormed its way into her heart. The Weir family wanted her. As the only surviving member of the royal family, Adora’s hand would bestow legitimacy on the next king, and Weir meant to claim the throne.

    Karele gave a brief shake of his head, the breeze ruffling his dark hair. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I don’t know.”

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