Now, please enjoy the next installment:
“Where were you?”
Rina turned. Troy stood in the door of her little hut, his eyes accusing.
“I was gathering information.”
“You were meeting him again.”
Rina tossed her head. “What I do is my business. I’m working to free my people, and I will do whatever it takes to accomplish that end, even meeting with the king’s head sorcerer.”
Troy stepped to her side and took her hand. “You can’t trust him. He is loyal to the king. He will betray you.”
Rina sighed. “I haven’t told him anything. He believes I’m nothing more than a simple maiden named Alise he met in town one day. There is nothing for him to betray.”
“What if he follows you? If he sees you go into the forest he’ll know who you are.”
“I’m careful not to let him see me leave. I can’t afford not to meet him. Our spies in the castle are being killed, one by one. I can’t put any more of them in danger. This is my best chance of finding the king’s weakness.”
“How will you do that? Do you really think he gives up the king’s secrets to every pretty face?”
“I’ve been invited to dine with him tonight. While I’m in the palace, I’ll find a way to make new contacts. At some point, someone will be able to tell me about the magic that protects the king.”
“I wish you wouldn’t go. It’s too dangerous.”
Rina squeezed his hand. “I cannot lead an army where I am not willing to go myself, and I will not lead them into a situation for which we are unprepared.”
Troy pulled her into his arms. His lips hovered near hers. “That’s not the only danger I’m worried about.”
Rina pushed him back. “You have to trust that I can take care of myself.”
He exhaled heavily. “I’ll care for the camp until you return.”
Dressed in her finest gown, her hair brushed until it shone, Rina knocked at the guardhouse door. “My name is Alise. Jarok is expecting me.”
The guard allowed her in and led her down a series of opulent hallways. The poverty and stench that permeated the city and villages just on the other side of the marble walls seemed worlds away.
Rina’s stomach turned. What kind of ruler could hide in the pristine confines of the palace while his people starved and rotted away with disease? When she was queen…
No, it did no good to think like that. She must take it one step at a time. First, she must find a way to bring the king down.
“Alise. I’m so glad you could come.”
Rina held out her hand. Jarok’s dark eyes burned into hers as he lifted her hand to kiss her fingers. Her breath caught as heat sparked through her at his touch. Her voice came out as scarcely more than a whisper. “I am pleased to be here.”
He led her to a table laden with delicacies.
Bile rose in her throat. “Where did you get all this? The farms are not producing this quality of food.”
“No, they aren’t. The king has food for the palace imported.”
Rina fought to keep a smile on her face as she tasted the rich concoctions spread out before her. Her people in the forest ate better than anyone in the villages, but even they hadn’t had anything even remotely like what she was served in more than twenty years.
“Try this.” Jarok handed her a bite of some sort of seasoned meat wrapped in a soft, flaky dough.
It tasted like bark to Rina.
“If the king has access to this kind of cuisine, why does he not feed his people better?”
“The rebels in the forest make it impossible to bring more than what is needed for the palace through their blockade.”
Rina burned at the accusation. To insinuate she had anything to do with the country’s poverty! She forced her voice to remain calm. “The farms were on the decline long before the rebels existed. My mother says they stopped producing years ago.”
Jarok waved his hand dismissively. “At any rate, the king has a plan to fix things.”
“He’s going to expand the trade rout by conquering neighboring lands.”
“And you think that will solve the country’s problems?”
“Why wouldn’t it? More trade means more food, and more sustenance for the people here.”
Rina bit her tongue to keep from giving herself away. How could she ever have thought this man handsome?
She gulped down her anger before responding. “Don’t you worry that instead of bringing us prosperity it might bring poverty to the lands that are conquered?”
“Why should it?”
Rina choked. She could be still no longer. “Because it is the constant use of magic that is sucking the life out of this land! How can you use power so freely with so little regard for its consequences? The king brought you and the others like you here, and you have destroyed our land.”
Jarok stood, towering over her. “And what if we did? This is not my land. I don’t care what happens here.”
Rina shoved away from the table and faced him. “Fool. Do you think the king will ever let you leave? You are his slave as much as any of the peasants in the villages. This is your land now, whether you were born here or not. You will die in misery with the rest of us if you continue to serve the king. And you’ll be the first one I—”
Her threat cut off as Jarok’s mouth covered hers. He pulled her against him, kissing her deeply.
Fire raged in her blood. She melted against him, returning the kiss with equal passion.
Breathless, she pulled away from him “I have to go. My people need me.”
She ran from the castle, almost knocking over an old lady in the hall in her hurry.
She hadn’t found the king’s weakness, and she’d exposed her true purpose to the king’s most trusted advisor. She very likely had just ruined everything.
Then again, if she played it right, she might just have found a way to win.
What is to come: