Eighty-six

"What's on your mind?" I started, abruptly yanked back from the dark days of the past. Rodan was standing very close to me, his mouth near my ear. I looked around. Jared was nowhere to be seen.

"He's stepped out for a moment."

"Ah."

He lifted his hand, as if to touch me, and then seemed to think better of it. I just stood there, avoiding his eyes, not knowing what to say. Who are you, I thought. What are you doing here? What is any of us doing here?

He turned away from me. "It's alright," he said. "I understand."

Understand what? From his tone I gathered that something significant had passed between us but, try as I might, I had no clue what it might have been. Maybe it's this place, I thought. Maybe it's making us turn upon one another, even now that the King is gone.

The door opened and Jared came in, followed by two of the Royal Guards, who took position on either side of the door.

"It won't be long, now." Along with the voice in his head came something else, like he was making an effort to be friendly.

"Right." I felt his presence linger, as if he wanted to say more but didn't know where to start. I chose to ignore him, and after a moment the sensation began to fade.

At the other end of the room a door opened and the old man, who we'd seen the night before, entered, followed by two Royal Guardsmen. One of the guards closed the door and then they, too, took their positions on either side of the door. The old man stood in front of them, his legs slightly apart, at ease. For a moment, no one moved or spoke.

For the first time I could take a good look at him, and I was shocked at how frail and exhausted he looked.

I reached out, as gently as I could. "Sir, are you alright?"

I waited for a reply, but none came.

"The King will see you now." I looked up, and found him looking straight at me. "You will have to be brief. He has not been well, lately." He turned to the others. "The two of you will need to remain here."

I waited, half expecting a reaction from either of my companions, but none came. "Sure," I said. "I won't be long." One of the Royal Guards opened the door and I followed the old man out.

I stopped, needing to let my eyes adjust. We were in a short corridor, dimly lit by the light coming in through a row of small stained glass windows, the colours darker and more saturated than they had been in the room that we had just left. I rubbed my face, trying to collect my thoughts.

"You don't have a message for the King, do you?" His voice in my head was quiet, controlled, and yet I could feel the intensity behind it.

"No," I admitted. "Though I have met Merran." I proceeded to tell him how, after the war, Merran had ended up at Jarvik's prison, and how he and I had met.

I decided not to mention Jadri. I had no idea where the old man fitted into the scheme of things, and I had no intention of setting an enemy on the young man's trail. The old man seemed to consider what I had said, and after a moment my thoughts began to wander. The corridor seemed to be getting darker, and I wonder whether it was getting dark outside, or that my eyes were playing tricks on me.

The old man chuckled, without real joy. "Your presence may even be a blessing in disguise, then. Come." He turned towards the door at the other end of the corridor.

"Wait," I said. "Please. Give me some idea of what's going on, so I won't upset the King by saying the wrong things."

This time he laughed out loud, a sound that sent a shiver down my spine. "Upset him? That's rich." He shook his eyes, wiping the tears from his eyes. "Please, forgive me," he said then. "You don't know what it's been like, over here."

I thought about what Jadri had told us, that night back at Jarvik's prison, about his father's disappearance, the murder on his mother, the frightening change that had come over his grandfather, the political turmoilů Maybe he's right, I thought, maybe I don't know. Maybe the war has been here all along, and we just haven't seen it before.

"No," I said. "I probably don't."

For a moment we stood there in silence, the beginning of an understanding between us. Then he turned towards the door. "Let's go."



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