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Jevran moaned and scraped his hands over his eyes. He rolled onto his back, blinking at the shadowy image of his captain standing over the bed. "What do you want at this hour? What time is it?"
"It's the third hour of Lastwatch, sire. Please, get up."
Jevran stared at Beno. The captain's voice sounded almost panicky. He sat up and reached for the shirt lying at the foot of the bed. "What is it?"
"Danilos. I don't know what he's doing, sire, or what plots are going through his head. But I tell you the man's up to something unpleasant. I haven't seen him now for hours."
"That should please you, shouldn't it?"
"No sir! I'd much rather have that rat where I can keep my eye on him, or both eyes, more likely as not. I—"
Beno froze as something rattled out on the balcony. He swung around. "You stay here. I don't trust anyone these days anymore."
Jevran got up and finished dressing as Beno prowled the balcony. As he tugged the last lace on his leather vest into place, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, near the fireplace. Jevran shivered. <i>Beno has me worked up now.</i>
Suddenly he felt a shove in his back. Jevran staggered into his bed and landed half-on, half-off, supporting his weight with his elbows. He rolled onto his back, saw a man dressed in dark clothes jumping for his throat. Jevran threw his elbow into the man's sternum and used his feet to continue the man's momentum over his head.
Beno yelped out on the balcony. Jevran lunged for the door. Halfway there he saw another dark movement, too fast for him to stop. He tripped over an outstretched foot, crashed to the floor. Instantly the man straddled his back. A gloved hand clamped over his mouth.
Jevran could see Beno struggling to tear free of an arm clenched around his neck. Jevran bucked against his attacker. Something hard struck his head and his arms buckled.
Jevran gritted his teeth, tried to shake off the daze and the nausea from the blow. He got one arm underneath his body, started to push upward. Hands gripped his wrists, jerked them behind his body.
He looked up, saw Beno fall, his face red from lack of air, but still breathing. The man stepped over Beno's body and into the room. He made eye contact with Jevran.
Jevran started. <i>Danilos! What in the world…</i> He snarled and tried to wrench his mouth free.
"Sir, what do we do with the captain?"
"Leave him for now. He's not as much of a threat to us as the others." Danilos smiled. "Are the other men in place?"
"Then let's escort our king to his new quarters."
The men kept his arms pinned as they jerked Jevran to his feet. Jevran didn't struggle, just bided his time and watched Danilos. The counselor walked ahead of them, not looking back. They turned north from his rooms, into unfamiliar passageways and back staircases. Jevran's shoulders tensed.
He should've been more inquisitive as a child. Varian had always poked around when he was younger. More often than not, he arrived to dinner with cobwebby hair and dust-streaked clothes. Jevran could bet his crown that Varian knew every foot of the musty corridors. But he knew one thing for certain. They were going downward. He could guess where.
The old barracks and dungeon sat in the back northwest corner of the castle, the section they were in now. Not many people frequented the run-down area of the castle—there had even been talk a couple of years ago of tearing it down, but that had come to nothing. The last time Jevran remembered someone entering that section was when Varian was ten and had unearthed a tarnished, jeweled dagger in the old barracks room.
He was somewhat familiar with that section of the castle, at least—he'd have to wait until they were there to break free.
Jevran narrowed his eyes at Danilos' back. The man was bold and confident. Too confident. Panic edged into his mind. Jevran clenched his hands, pushing it back. A warrior does not panic—it numbs the mind, slows the decision-making process. How many times had he heard it from his sword instructor, and later from Varian? His brother had learned to keep a cool head early. And, from the looks of things, it had served him well. He wasn't the one being forced into an abandoned section of the castle, maybe to his death—
Stop it, he told himself.
Danilos stopped in front of an old, mossy door at the foot of a rickety staircase. Jevran quickly reviewed his options for escape. The man on his left held him with both hands, one hand on his wrist and the other on his elbow. But the man on the right held him with one hand on his wrist—the other arm was wrapped around Jevran's head, the hand over his mouth.
Jevran inwardly smirked. The weakest guard on my strongest side—not a smart move, Danilos.
Danilos pushed the door open, stepped through, and paused. They listened. Jevran could only hear his captors' breathing and the staircase creaking. Then Danilos motioned for them to follow.
Jevran took one step down, then jerked backward, leaning heavily to the left. His right arm tore free. He elbowed the guard on the in the gut, knocking the man off his feet, then drove backward, slamming his other guard into the wall. Both of the men doggedly clung to his arms.
"Beno! Somebody get down here—"
A hand again closed over his mouth. Jevran thrust his elbow back and felt it graze the wall. A sharp kick made his knees buckle. He grabbed out, hoping to catch something, but his hands swiped empty air and he tumbled head over heels down the steps. His head cracked against the stone pavement. Jevran yelped and curled into a ball, digging his fingers into his hair. The light from Danilos' torch stabbed his eyes, driving the ache deeper into his head.
"Fools!" Danilos fitted a strip of cloth around Jevran's head and tied it tightly.
Jevran flinched and struggled to sit up. The floor seemed to heave, making him unable to balance. The heavier-built guard knelt beside him and tied his arms behind his back, then pulled him to his feet.
Jevran moaned and staggered. The walls and floor swayed as he stumbled after Danilos, propelled by the two guards. They passed the barracks and entered the dungeon. Panic took full flight.
They're going to kill me!
He tried to dig his heels in and only succeeded in tripping himself. They dragged him into a cell and dropped him. Jevran laid still, wincing from the headache splitting his brain. He heard a faint, metallic scraping and felt them fasten a chain around his ankle. For a brief second, he felt relief—then the panic returned, stronger than before. He kicked out, nicking someone's leg.
"Stay your struggle, my king." Danilos laughed.
Jevran sat up and glared at him. He jerked at the chain, saw that it was new and embedded in the wall with a bright pin. They've been planning this carefully. He growled.
"Keep this in mind, Jevran—I'm not a force to be trifled with. Next time, you will cooperate with me. Consider this a taste of what I can do."
Onna pursed her lips and counted the stitches in her knitting again. "This will never do," she muttered.
"What?" Tikah asked.
"This." Onna waved the sock. "I'm knitting socks for Toym's oldest daughter. The poor girl has tiny toes, and I'm positive that if I drop even one stitch, one of her toes will find that hole and poke through it, small as it is. Now what's the use of new socks if your toe pokes through it?"
"Did you drop a stitch?"
"Worse—I dropped three. Five rows ago. Now I have to unravel an evening's work. I hate knitting."
"Why do you do it, then?"
"An old woman who chatters, knits, and has a penchant for herbs is generally considered more of a nuisance than a threat."
A heavy fist sounded on the door. Tikah stood and opened it. Onna looked over her shoulder and her heart jumped to her throat.
Two broad-shouldered soldiers stood at the doorway. Behind them, Onna saw another soldier dressed in black, keeping a tight grip on Mel's arm.
"Oh dear," she murmured.
"Do you need something?" Tikah asked, glancing at Onna. Her eyes were wide in panic.
"We were instructed to bring you and the herbalist into the Council Room for questioning."
Could Jevran have betrayed us? Onna wondered.
Tikah's voice was sharp with panic. "Under whose authority?"
The smaller guard coughed into his hand. "Head Counselor Danilos'."
"Since when does he give orders to the king's soldiers?"
"Tikah," Onna said sternly. "Let's go along. I'm sure that the mess will be cleared up quite soon." She turned to her chair and gathered her knitting into a basket. She shuffled out the door. Even though she managed to keep herself collected, she had to admit it was a bit disconcerting to hear the two soldiers fall in behind her.
As they emerged from the sheltered kitchen passage, they could hear the sounds of pounding feet. A group of soldiers ran past them, heading for the Great Hall.
Mel twisted around. He was holding back his panic better than Tikah, but Onna could still see it lurking in his eyes. "Onna, what do you think—"
Onna shook her head and looked up as one of the soldiers came to her side. "What's going on?"
"King Jevran has disappeared, ma'am," he said.
Onna let her basket slip from the crook of her elbow to her hand, as if in shock. She felt Mel and Tikah's eyes on her. "Disappeared? Whatever does that mean?"
"I dunno, ma'am, Counselor Danilos is keeping a close mouth about it—"
The guard never finished. Onna swung the basket into his gut, hard enough to extract a grunt and send him stumbling against the wall.
Mel pounded his knee into the black-armored soldier's thigh, deadening his leg, then planted a fist in his jaw. Tikah attacked the soldier leaning against the wall, grabbing his helmet and jerking it over his face, as Onna swung to face the last soldier. It was the shorter one. She whipped out one of her knitting needles, wincing as she thought of the work she'd just undone. He backed into the wall, hands up.
"Onna, be careful where you're swinging that thing! Don't stab me!" he yelped.
Onna suddenly recognized him. "Toym. Oh dear. What are you doing mixed up in this?"
"I don't have any idea." Toym rubbed his temples. "Danilos didn't tell anyone what was going on, only that the king had disappeared. He sent some of his men out with us."
"The black-dressed ones—they're Danilos' men?" Mel demanded.
"Yes. Every councilmember has the right to personal guards. Danilos' arrived this morning. There was some talk about him heading home. But I guess he won't after this."
"No, I guess he won't," Mel muttered. "Onna, we need to get moving. What do we do about him?"
"What are we going to do?" Tikah sounded excited as she echoed her brother.
Onna turned. Tikah stood over one of the downed soldiers, his helmet in her hands. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparkled.
"This is serious," Mel groaned. "We have to get out of here, because we just attacked the king's soldiers. That in itself could bring heavy punishment."
"I have to find Beno," Onna said. "Toym, do you know where he is?"
"No. I haven't seen him since the beginning of Lastwatch." Toym shifted uncomfortably. "He was nervous all evening. Kept pacing and muttering."
"He knew something." Onna tapped her chin with the knitting needle, realized what she was holding, and slipped it into her basket. "Or suspected something."
She knew Mel and Tikah needed to run—but what about Toym? He was in a compromising situation. Someone would've known he was sent with the group ordered to fetch them. Found uninjured, he could risk grave punishment, maybe even a charge of treason.
And where could Beno be? Onna closed her eyes, concentrating. If he'd been as worried as Toym thought, then he would've gone to the person he thought could best take care of the problem. "And to think that only a few minutes ago, all I was worried about was my knitting," she muttered.
"Onna?" Mel prompted.
"Toym, you can't stay here. Why don't you take Mel and Tikah and go to the Highlands?"
Toym's eyes widened. "Begging your pardon, ma'am—but are you mad?"
"It's probably the best solution," Mel agreed. "Where to?"
Onna hurriedly gave him the same directions she'd given Varian. "Don't be surprised if you're greeted before by a dragon, or a dragonrider. Oh, and don't forget to tell Varian what has happened, and that I'll be along before too long with more detailed news. Now, you'd better get going."
"What about you?"
"I'm going to find Beno." Onna didn't wait for a reply, but hurried out of the hallway. She knew that Mel would be able to get them out safely. He'd tagged along with Varian on explorations enough to know all the hidden ways out of the castle.
As busy as it had sounded minutes before, the Great Hall was now silent. The moonlight streamed in through a stained glass window, creating hard, cold colors on the marble floor. She darted across the room, her footsteps echoing. No one was on the stairs to the second story. It was deserted. Onna wondered if anyone besides a few select groups of soldiers even knew that Jevran was missing. She pushed the door open to Jevran's room and stepped inside.
The bedding was hanging of the mattress, and the rug was crooked, but other than that, it looked very normal. Clearly, whoever had attacked Jevran—assuming someone had attacked him—had been professionals. Onna thought of Danilos' guards as she straightened the bed and the rug. Could it really have been possible…
The stirring curtain caught her eye. She glimpsed a bit of the balcony beyond as the curtains moved with a breeze. The doors weren't shut. As he she moved to close them, she saw an outflung hand. Her heart stuttered and she thrust the curtains aside.
Beno sprawled on the balcony, his eyes closed, his mouth open as he breathed unevenly. Onna drew the curtains behind her and knelt beside him, searching for a pulse on his neck. A purple, swollen bruise striped his throat.
His pulse was strong. Onna rocked back on her heels and studied him. His throat, bruised as it was, wouldn't cause the little sharp catch she heard every time the unconscious captain drew in a breath. Then she saw the thin trail of blood snaking across the balcony.
She scrambled to his other side. The blood came from two places, gashes in his arm and the side of his chest. They were jagged, not like the clean cut of a knife at all. She searched the balcony until she noticed a rough-edged portion of the balcony rail—with blood smeared on it.
She rubbed her hand along it. Beno would had to have been thrown against it extremely hard to make him bleed. And if his side was bleeding, there could possibly be some internal damage. She hurried to his side again and gently shook him. His head flopped from side to side but he didn't wake. She pulled a bottle from her basket, uncorked it, and stuck it under his nose. It would make him cough, and she didn't like that with possible internal damage, but there was really no other option.
Within seconds, Beno sneezed. Then he started coughing. Onna returned the bottle to the basket and folded her hands in her lap.
Beno rolled onto his side and squinted at her. "Onna?"
"What did you use to wake me? I feel like I've been punched in the ribs."
"More than likely, you have." Onna stood. "Come on. I'll take you the back way so we don't run into anyone."
She gripped her basket tight as she led Beno north from the king's room. It wasn't a quiet journey. Beno wheezed and groaned and limped to keep up with her. Onna watched him. He walked with his left side hunched, like it hurt. He probably had a rib or two bruised or broken—Onna sincerely hoped it wasn't the latter.
Finally, she decided that, since they had yet to be discovered even with all of Beno's noise, she might as well talk.
"Why did you go up to Jevran's room?"
Beno cleared his throat. "To talk about Danilos. The man could very well be a threat, what with his wild talk and shutting himself up in his rooms for days on end. It worries me, to be frank."
"I heard something on the balcony, went out, and this person dressed in black attacked me. I thrashed around trying to get free, but he slammed me against the balcony rail. I couldn't do much after that, it made my side hurt like something was clawing it open." Beno clenched his hands and stopped. "Have you seen anyone? Jevran? Mel? Tikah?"
"Mel and Tikah are on their way to the Highlands, taking Varian the news. And, if I'm right in my guesses, Danilos has kidnapped our king."
"I'm gonna kill him."
"I wouldn't suggest that. Let's get to one of my hideaways, then we can plan."