The scare of being attacked by mercenaries had lit a fire under everyone in Crow’s party. The next day, they were all up and moving at the very first light of dawn, anxious to complete their ride to the Younisian castle before their enemies—whoever they were—could make a second attempt to stop them. Preston got ahead of the horses, feeding and watering them in preparation for the long ride ahead; Percival took care of the packing and loaded up all the belongings they’d taken to their room at the inn; and Rayner followed up with Naida’s treatment to make sure her open wound didn’t show any signs of infection since the physician had bound it the night before. Even Crow, who wasn’t fond of starting his mornings in a rush, climbed out of bed without prompting and dressed and ate right away, so he was ready to go when they finally made their way to the stable to catch up with his attendant.
The Younisian knights that had helped them the day before also made an appearance to escort them, as an added precaution. In their company, Crow and the rest of the Brerratic entourage settled their horses into a quicker gait than they had until that point in the hopes that the could make it to the palace by nightfall if they pushed the animals to their limits. It was difficult, with Naida barely fit to be carried in a sling between two mounts. There was no way she was going to be able to ride upright by herself, so they had set up the same makeshift cot to transport her as they had after they’d found her in the woods. However, it was rockier this time, as they left the flatlands of the last village and navigated through the more uneven terrain closer to the central part of the kingdom.
The former thief felt a little guilty for putting her through the pain of getting jostled by their fast-trotting horses, but unfortunately, it was their only choice if they didn’t want to end the day at another city outside the palace. He hoped that when they arrived, the security in and around the castle would be enough to keep the mercenaries at bay until he finished negotiating with the foreign king. Once he had a signed treaty—which he didn’t plan on leaving without—they would be one step closer to ending the war between their two countries. One step closer to bringing Penelope home from the front lines and saving the outer villages from further desolation. That was something he couldn’t risk losing, even for the sake of his wounded half-sister.
He wasn’t without compassion though. Whenever she was awake and he wasn’t occupied by guiding Baine through the winding parts of the road, he kept her distracted from her discomfort with stories from the last time he’d been through this part of Younis. He told her about how Penelope had taught him to use a bow, how they’d forced William to steal horses with them when they needed mounts on their way back to Brerra and, when the Younisian knights were out of earshot, about how they’d gotten away from the castle with the king’s staff.
Naida found the stories amusing, but they also helped the viceroy pass the time on the way to the palace. Since they were hurrying, the group didn’t stop for lunch or dinner, and he was famished as the sun began to sink lower in the sky. Talking to his sister took his mind off the hunger pangs until the castle walls finally came into view up ahead, and he could breathe easy knowing they had made it without any more threats to their lives.
“The royal guard will lead you from here,” one of the knights announced when they finally stopped just outside the main curtain wall. He and his comrades dismounted to help Percival and Rayner with Naida’s sling, while Crow and Preston dropped to the ground to stretch their legs. Once his half-sister was on her feet—leaning heavily against Percy’s side—the Younisian knights left them to wait for their next set of escorts, who appeared on the other side of the gate after just a few minutes of standing around. From there, they were led into a courtyard the former thief didn’t remember seeing before, since he and Penelope had broken in through a back portion of the wall the last time they’d been to the palace and it had been dark and stormy throughout the night.
He trailed after the royal guards toward the back of the group, letting his eyes wander over the sprawling gardens and water features under the dimming evening sky until they stepped through the main entrance, and the green was replaced with marble and gold.
“This place is amazing,” Preston breathed beside him, his wide eyes lifted high to the arched, coffered ceiling.
Crow nodded his agreement, though his gaze was fixed on something he’d just noticed directly ahead of them. At the base of a split, grand staircase, there was another water feature like the ones he’d spotted in the garden. It sat above the floor in a circular, gray stone pool, but it stood out from the rest because carved into the wall behind it was an oversized sculpture of a woman in long, flowing robes and her hands cupped just below her breast. It had been a long time, but he recognized her immediately.
“Emissaries from Brerra?”
The sound of an unfamiliar voice drew his attention away from the statue as he turned to see a man about twenty years his senior descending the right side of the staircase. He was dressed in purple with a band-like adornment around his head and was flanked on each side by two armed guards whose hands rested imposingly on the hilts of their swords. Judging by the grand entrance, he looked important, but Crow remembered an older man the last time he’d come across the king of Younis. This person was much younger than the one who lived in his memory.
“My, my, this is unexpected,” the man mused, studying the ragged group with a curious expression. “To what do I owe this… visit during the middle of a war? Has your kingdom finally decided to surrender?”
Crow pressed his lips together. There was a condescending note to his voice that made him think this man wasn’t going to be excited to accept a proposal for peace without one kingdom conquering the other. He wasn’t about to be turned away before he could even give his pitch to the king though. Not after everything he and the rest of his group had been through—and not when Penelope was relying on him to see through this next leg of their mission. She had put in the hard work of winning over their kingdom, so now it was his turn to fight for the Younisians’ support.
Stepping forward, he met the older man’s gaze evenly. “I come bearing a proposition for your king in regard to the war. Is he available for an audience?” Remembering the training his father had given him before he’d left, he spoke more formally than he would have if he’d been spent with instructions to use his own voice. The pomp made him cringe internally, but he needed to be taken seriously, so he suppressed his disgust with the charade and straightened his shoulders determinedly.
The man on the stairs eyed him for a moment and then smirked. “I am he.” Descending the rest of the way to the floor below, he introduced himself with a flourish of his hand, “King Jerold Vieuxpont.”
As he stated his name, ritual seemed to register in the minds of the rest of the group, because everyone who was physically able in Crow’s entourage responded with deep bows. Percival tipped slightly to support Naida, who even ducked her head, though she winced at the motion. Crow wasn’t as quick to the punch, but when he saw the others show the purple-clad man respect, he followed their lead with a bow of his own, rectifying his first question while his gaze was still lowered to the floor: “My apologies, Your Highness. I was under the impression the king of Younis was…older.”
Jerold chuckled. “Ah, you were probably expecting my father, weren’t you? Relations between our lands hasn’t been great lately, I suppose… Unfortunately, he passed away two summers ago. Reign of Younis has since fallen to me.”
Of course, Crow thought with a blink. Aeklora had said something about that to him last time, hadn’t she? In the years that had passed, he’d completely forgotten about the goddess’s prophesy that the former Younisian king didn’t have much time left. Apparently he’d already expired, and his son was in charge now. He wasn’t sure if that was a benefit or a hinderance to his agenda. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he replied, righting his posture again to meet the other man at eye-level.
“I’ve had more than enough time to grieve,” Jerold waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway. I am interested in hearing more about this proposition of yours…”
“Collin,” Crow supplied, guessing the king was fishing for a name when he trailed off.
“Collin,” Jerold echoed with a smile that only just touched his eyes. It was then that he finally turned toward Naida, who looked like she barely had the strength to keep clinging to Percival’s shoulder, and gestured at one of his men. “Why don’t we plan to speak tomorrow morning, after you and your guards have had time to rest? There are plenty of rooms available in the palace, so you’re more than welcome to stay here. Emory can show you to your accommodations.”
One of the guards on Jerold’s left bowed curtly and stepped out of position. “Right this way.”
Crow felt slightly hesitant to take him up on the offer immediately after he’d started to get the feeling that they weren’t as welcome as Jerold wanted them to believe. There was no way the king hadn’t heard about the mercenary attack by now, so it was apparent that he didn’t care Naida had been wounded by the paid attackers. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter when his half-sister was going to keel over at any second though, so, swallowing his pride, he nodded and moved to follow Emory. “Thank you. We’ll speak in the morning.”
Leaving Jerold to ascend the stairs again, the former thief led his party down one of the side halls after the Younisian guard. With a set of ears present that were guaranteed to feed information back to the king, none of them bothered to talk amongst each other until they were shown to the three rooms where they would be staying—one for Naida, one for Crow and one for the other three men to share. Percy thanked Emory for escorting them, and once they were alone and had laid the princess down to sleep in peace and quiet, everyone who was still well enough to get around gathered together in the knights’ room.
“King Vieuxpont is an… interesting man,” Preston frowned, sitting on one of the beds with a sigh. “I can’t tell if he’s actually interested in hearing what you have to say or if he’s already scheduling our execution in the back of his head.”
“His kindness does seem tactical,” Rayner agreed quietly, reclining on his own bed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Crow shrugged. While the knights and his attendant readied themselves to sleep for the night, he stood with his shoulders against the door and his arms folded loosely across his chest. “Even if he’s against us now, it doesn’t change the fact that I won’t be leaving here without his signature on that peace treaty. We might just be here longer than we first thought.”
“I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to convince him,” Preston wrinkled his nose.
“I’m sure Collin will do fine,” Percival said supportively, turning to the viceroy. “That’s what all the training with King Albin was for, right?”
“Technically, most of that was for negotiating with Gorm,” Crow pointed out. “But I’m sure I can get him to come around. The treaty Albin came up with is a fair trade for both kingdoms, so he doesn’t have anything to lose by agreeing.”
“Except for the total control of an enemy kingdom,” Rayner muttered.
“But he isn’t guaranteed that by continuing with the war either,” Percy objected.
“And that’s what I’m leaning on to win him over before we leave,” Crow nodded. Taking a step away from the door panel, he reached for its ornate, gold handle and gave it a pull. “And on that note, I should get some rest, so I’ve got the mental clarity to speak with him tomorrow… Keep an eye on Naida for me, Preston.”
“I will,” the attendant promised.
They said a few parting words, and the viceroy traipsed to his own room to dress down for the night. He tossed his surcoat and other regalia over the footboard and collapsed on the mattress in his underclothes with an exhausted exhale. As long of a day as it had been, he had a feeling tomorrow would be even longer. He’d been serious when he had told the others that he wasn’t leaving without King Jerold’s signature though. No matter how much effort it took, he was going to make sure the war ended when he left Younis. It was what Penelope and Hazel and Rikki and Alistair and everyone else on the border deserved, and he wasn’t going to let them down.