Swampling King Excerpt 3

If you like this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com

———

Josen

No matter how hard he tried, Josen couldn’t get the swampling girl’s face out of his head.

Why did I let her go? But he knew why; he just didn’t know if it was a very good reason. He had never seen a swampling before, but they had only ever been described to him as unnatural, disgusting, even monstrous; the Dal’s Rest masks suggested spectres with empty pits for eyes. No one had ever told him that they could look very much like people.

Aside from her strange eyes and pale skin, the girl’s features could have belonged to any woman in the Plateaus: a sharp chin, high cheekbones, a wide forehead creased with worry. And she spoke! There had been a faint, strange accent to the words, but she had spoken. The stories said that swamplings never made a sound, but she’d just sounded afraid. And when he had looked into her eyes—too large, certainly, and too dark, but not the eyes of a monster—he’d seen fear there too. Helping her had almost been an instinct; he hated to watch these new knights of Duke Castar’s get away with their bullying. He certainly hadn’t given it much thought.

Now, though, the thoughts swarmed in his head like gnats, and he found that he didn’t much like their bite. Of course she was afraid, you idiot—she didn’t want to be caught and killed. But why was she here, if not to spy? What was she planning? What did I help her do? Was I saving her, or betraying everyone in the Plateaus? In all the Nine Peaks? He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. He had been told more than once that he needed to think more before acting—by his father, by his brother, by Shona when she had still been speaking to him. He just hoped that he hadn’t finally made a mistake too large to correct.

Rudol’s voice pulled him back to the present. “What’s wrong with you? It can’t be regret. I know you better than that.”

Josen glanced up and was unsurprised to see the disapproving scowl stretched across his younger brother’s face—a shadowy gash across his jaw in the dim yellow gaslight. Rudol leaned against the wall opposite Josen, outside the door to their father’s chambers in the Aryllian Keep; they had been waiting in the hall for a quarter-hour while the king spoke to Cer Eian and Cer Horte within. Deciding what to do with me, Josen thought. Nothing good, I’m sure.

The Keep’s halls were stark and unadorned, grey stone broken only by infrequent windows and the occasional wall-mounted lamp fuelled by gas harvested from the Swamp. Comforts were reserved for the chambers themselves; the passages that connected them were uniformly dull, and after nightfall, uncomfortably cold. Even so, Josen would gladly have endured the chill and the boredom for hours longer still. He suspected that what was waiting for him in the warmth of his father’s rooms would be much worse.

He straightened his back against the wall and forced himself to meet Rudol’s scowl with a grin. “What is wrong with me? More than a few things, I’ve been told. You might need to be more specific.”

Rudol narrowed his eyes. “Be serious. Arguing with a knight in a tavern is one thing, attacking him is another. You can’t avoid punishment this time, and your… humor”—he wrinkled his nose—“will only make Father more angry.”

Josen gave a half-amused snort. Angry? Spirit of All, I wish. Better to have him shout at me than look straight through me. But he doubted that Rudol would appreciate the distinction just then. “I didn’t attack anyone,” he said. “They did the attacking, noble knights that they are. Brave enough when they’re grabbing women who can’t resist without being whipped, but one of them falls down trying to hit me and they run weeping to Father.”

“I could have guessed you wouldn’t listen. I don’t know why I tried.” Rudol crossed his arms and looked down at the floor, apparently finished. He had never been much for conversation.

It used to be he was just quiet, though. He never used to be so angry. Josen examined his brother in silence for a moment. It was hard to believe that the chubby boy who had followed him everywhere had turned into this sullen giant who lived and died by King Gerod’s word. With his bald head, Rudol even looked like their father now—if a great deal larger—where he had once shared the dark curls of the Terenes with Josen and their mother.

“If I try very hard, I can remember a time when you were somewhat fond of me,” Josen said. “What happened to those days?”

Rudol barely looked at him, just a quick flicker of his eyes, up then down again. He shrugged. “I grew up. You didn’t.”

Josen sighed. I wish that didn’t sound so true, little brother. Trying to continue the conversation seemed pointless. He couldn’t really argue; even at twenty-three years old, he still didn’t feel much like a man grown.

He walked down the hall to the nearest window, pushed open the shutters of clouded glass, and leaned over the sill into the fresh night air.

He hated every moment he spent in the Aryllian Keep; it was suffocating. Most of the palace was built directly into the mountainside, and the external buildings and outer walls were carved unbroken from the Godspire itself. Everywhere, he could feel the weight of stone shaped by Aryllia herself in days long past, trapping him, crushing him. Not just with walls, but with history, and legacy, and blood—the Keep reminded him of everything he hated about being his father’s son. At night, in the sickly, wavering yellow of the gas-lamps, every room looked like the one his mother had died in. He could almost smell it when he gave his imagination free rein: a hint of decay wafting over the mountain flowers that had been brought in to mask such odors.

He wondered what Elda Terene would have said if she knew her son had helped a swampling escape the Plateaus. Despite her deep-seated piety, he had a sneaking suspicion that she’d have forgiven him. Not that it meant much. Toward the end, his mother would have happily watched the Queensmount sink into the Swamp if it had meant freedom from King Gerod. Swamplings overrunning the Keep would have looked like an escape to her.

The window faced south, toward the Royal Eyrie just beyond the Keep’s outer walls. Silhouetted by the lights of the Countsbluff, the nine concentric circular tiers of the temple were impossible to miss. Some two hundred feet from the bottom of the first tier to the top of the ninth, it was easily the highest structure in the Plateaus. At the eyrie’s summit, nine great hanging banners ringed the open-air nest where chastors gave their sermons, each with a different design, but each—save one—bearing the Sky God’s most revered aspect: the Lord of Eagles, whose single great eye was the sun. The arms of the eight Windwalkers who had performed the Rising, and one bare black, where the Deepwalker’s sigil might once have flown. The people of the Nine Peaks called the descendants of the Windwalkers “Eagles” because of those family arms—other houses were forbidden to bear the God’s most sacred symbol.

The banners were too far away to see well by moonlight, a hundred feet and more above his head, but Josen recognized the colors and shapes by memory. His eyes were drawn to the crowned eagle of Aryllia, gold on sky-blue, and then to Terene’s black eagle perched atop a watchtower against a white field. The crests of his family, on both sides—two of the three surviving Windwalker bloodlines. Symbols of a life he didn’t want. The Eagles rarely married amongst themselves, to prevent rampant inbreeding; when Gerod died, Josen would be the first king descended from Windwalkers on both sides. A Terene and an Aryllia at once, as he was so often reminded. More responsibility he’d never asked for. If I have to be an Eagle, why not the kind that can fly? I’m as trapped here as Mother was.

Above the eyrie, stars freckled the early evening sky; they reminded him of her. She had loved to star-gaze. Josen looked over his shoulder at his brother. “Do you remember when she would take us out on the walls to look at the stars, Rudol?”

“Mother?” Rudol blinked. “Of course I do.”

“Every star is a soul, she said. Same as the chastors do, but I heard it from her before I ever did from them. The souls pure enough—whatever that means—to earn their way into the Above. I remember once, I wasn’t more than eight or nine years old and I’d made Father angry. She took me out to the walls and told me that. I thought she meant that if I kept misbehaving I wouldn’t get in. God Above, that terrified me. Even then I was fairly bad at behaving myself.”

“I can’t imagine Mother scolding you like that,” Rudol said. “She was too lenient with you, if anything. You were always her favorite.”

“It wasn’t really a scolding. When she saw how scared I was, she hugged me and told me not to be. I don’t remember exactly how she said it, but… the idea was that if we’re all born again until we earn our place in the Above, it doesn’t matter what mistakes we make. Just that we learn from them. She was talking about second chances, not final judgements.” Josen didn’t quite know why he was telling the story, or what he expected from Rudol. His brother wasn’t much for second chances.

But the rebuke he expected didn’t come. “That sounds more like her,” Rudol said, and there was something that might have been sadness in his voice. “She used to love that line from the Word. The end of a life…”

“Is only the beginning of another,” Josen finished. They both lapsed into silence then; it was hard to say those words and not think of the way their mother had died. Josen vividly remembered the way she’d always said them—how wistful she’d sounded. A sign, if I’d bothered to see it. If the dead really were reborn into other lives, Josen hoped that she had found a happier one.

But I’m still stuck with this one.

Josen looked back to the sky, hoping to see one of the baskets leaving for the southern duchies. The great balloons that kept them aloft were made of lightworm silk from the Swamp, and at night they glowed like little moons floating on the wind. But there was only one moon in the sky, half-hidden behind the dark blade of the Godspire. Not a surprise—the winds didn’t blow during a rest, and the baskets couldn’t fly without wind.

But he always looked, even when he knew he’d be disappointed.

He’d loved the baskets since he was just a boy. When he watched them fly, he could imagine himself on board, floating off to another life. It was only an idle dream, though. Even if he somehow commandeered a basket and got it into the air, his exact destination could be easily determined by a glance at a wind-chart—the aviators had long since mapped the skies with enough accuracy to track any basket by its place and time of departure.

The winds that carried the balloons between the Nine Peaks were very near to perfectly predictable: each cycle had its own dependable pattern of currents, divided into four nine-day turns and ending in a three-day windless rest. A gift from the Sky God, the chastors said, at least for those who could afford to fly—not many, given the price of the gas that fueled the baskets. But for Josen, it just meant that his only way out was the Swamp, and he had no illusions about his ability to survive there. He wouldn’t last a day.

He was stuck, really, in the Plateaus and in the Keep. There was no place to hide where he wouldn’t be found, usually within a few hours. It had only taken them so long this time because of the festival masks, and those were not an asset he could rely on outside the three days of Dal’s Rest. Sometimes he was allowed a day or two, but it was never very satisfying—it only meant that his father knew exactly where he was, and had men watching him. As soon as Gerod needed him, they always brought him back. And then we do it all over again.

“God Above, I hate this place,” he muttered.

He didn’t think he had spoken loudly enough to hear, and he was surprised when Rudol responded. “Why not say it louder? It’s no secret. You spend all your time trying to run away.”

The accusation in Rudol’s voice was far from unusual; Josen was accustomed to his younger brother’s disapproval. He could ignore it, most of the time. But he was already on edge—the swampling girl, the Keep, the looming threat of King Gerod’s judgement, it was more than enough. He didn’t need this too.

He turned on his heel and gestured angrily at the drab stone walls. “Look around you, Rudol! This place is what killed our mother. This place, this life, that man.” He jabbed his finger toward King Gerod’s door. “This keep is a crypt, and we’re already buried in it. Is it so wrong that I want to pretend I’m still alive from time to time?”

“Generations of our family have lived here. It’s stone and mortar, nothing more.” Rudol looked down again and was silent for a time, then spoke without raising his eyes. “Someday soon, the Throne of Air will be yours. Whether you’re ready or not, whether you’ve earned it or not. There are more important things than what you want.”

“Yes, I know: I’m childish, I’m irresponsible, I’m selfish. It would be so much better for everyone if you took the throne.”

Rudol still wouldn’t meet his eyes. “That is not what I—”

“No, you’re right. If Father was a wiser man, he would let me go next time I try. I would be an awful king. But no one seems to care very much about that, do they?” Josen ran a hand through his hair, and his next words tumbled out before he could decide if he meant them or not. “Well, here’s a promise that should make you breathe easier, little brother: the day they try to put a crown on my head, I will throw myself off this mountain. You can have it.”

Rudol finally looked up at him then, his large brow creased, and opened his mouth as if to speak. But he only shut it again, and clenched his jaw tight. He doesn’t know what to say to that. It didn’t feel like much of a victory. Stupid. He’ll tell Father, and then they’ll never give me another moment to myself. Josen didn’t even know why he had said it—it wasn’t something he would ever do, not really. He couldn’t think I meant it seriously, could he? Maybe he won’t say anything.

But then… there had been days when he could see no other way out, days when he had looked down into the oily grey of the mist from the edge of the precipice in Cliffside and wondered, if only for a moment, what it would feel like to fall. If he believed the Word of the Wind—which he wasn’t certain he did—even the most impure souls would be born again, and it was hard to imagine a life he wouldn’t prefer to this one. That was the kind of freedom Elda Terene had chosen; a quicker path, perhaps, but the same destination. And how many times had King Gerod accused him of being too much like her?

Rudol would remember that. He remembered everything their father said. Josen shifted his feet, suddenly uncomfortable under his brother’s searching gaze.

At that moment, the door to King Gerod’s chambers swung open, and Cer Horte stepped out, breaking Rudol’s line of sight. Wind of Grace, thank you. Josen hadn’t thought he would ever be glad to see the man again, but just then, he was a welcome distraction.

Horte kept his gaze rigidly forward and bowed awkwardly. “Highnesses,” he mumbled, then walked quickly to the stairs, ducking his head down until he was out of sight. I’ve seen men stand the cliff looking less scared. I wonder what Father said to him. Whatever it was, Josen doubted that Horte or his friends would be telling anyone what had happened in the tavern. King Gerod knew how to ensure a man’s silence.

Eian Gryston came through the door just after Horte disappeared down the stairs, and despite everything, Josen couldn’t help but smile.

“Eian!” He strode forward and clasped the lord general’s hand. “It’s been too long.” Eian had commanded the Royal Swords when Josen was younger; he’d tutored both the king’s sons in swordplay, and lent his ear more than once when Josen had needed someone to talk to. Now, though, they saw each other only rarely.

My own fault, really. Since resuming his post as lord general of the Knights of the Storm, Eian had little time to visit the Plateaus, and when he did it was for tournaments and dinners and the like—all events that Josen took great pains to avoid.

“Josen. I had hoped you might come to the tournament. It is good to see you, lad.” Eian smiled, though his lined face and deep-set eyes made him look more sad than happy when he did—Josen had never noticed that when he was younger. “But under the circumstances… well, we will have time to speak later. The king wishes to see the two of you now.”

Josen winced. He hadn’t meant for his little adventure to trouble Eian, but the man was the lord general—his involvement had probably been inevitable. One more thing, Josen supposed, that would have been obvious if he had bothered to stop and think about it. But it wasn’t my fault. Horte and his like started it. They always start it. They’re in the wrong, not me. He might even have convinced himself, except that the swampling girl’s dark eyes still stared at him whenever he closed his own. God Above, if Eian knew about her…

Rudol pushed away from the wall and straightened to his full height—a head taller than Josen, who was hardly short. “Come on then. We’re wasting time.” He shouldered past Eian and through the door.

Josen looked at Eian a moment longer, wanting to say something—to tell him about the girl and everything else, just like he would have when he was a boy. But it was different now. Eian might forgive many things, but not giving aid to a swampling. He wouldn’t understand. Not anymore.

In the end, he could only force a smile. “I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble. We’ll talk afterward.” Then, squaring his shoulders and feigning a composure he didn’t feel, he stepped through the door and closed it behind him.

King Gerod’s receiving room was empty when he entered. Rudol had already passed into the bedchamber through the doorway at the far side. A fire crackled in the hearth, and the chairs around the fireside table were askew, as if they’d been used recently—the king would have spoken to Eian and Horte there before returning to his bed.

Josen’s step faltered. He had sat before that fire many, many times while his father had lectured him; he wished he didn’t have to pass it by now. Even kneeling before the Throne of Air in the Windsmouth would have been better than going on into that bedroom. That bedroom, where King Gerod lay in a sickbed too much like the one he had never visited when his wife lay dying. Josen felt no pity for his father, but he had seen enough sickness in this place. More than enough.

“Josen! He’s waiting.” Rudol leaned out of the far doorway and beckoned impatiently.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming.” Taking a deep breath, Josen followed his brother into their father’s bedchamber.

The room was dimly lit—a candle on the bedside table, another on the windowsill—and it stank of sweat and waste. The king had only been abed with this particular bout of illness for two days, but Gerod didn’t allow anyone in to clean while he was ill, and kept the single window closed and shuttered. “A king should never appear weak before his subjects,” he had told Josen time and time again.

A small man with thinning grey hair sat beside the king’s bed, clothed in brown robes with a mantle of eagle’s feathers about his shoulders. A silver circlet sat about his temples, with a colored glass eagle’s eye in a golden sunburst at the brow. Renold Mulley, the royal chastor. Mulley smiled in silent greeting, and Josen felt an unsettling but familiar sensation: that the golden eye affixed to that chastor’s circlet was peering at him independently of its wearer.

Gerod had little use for chastors, but for whatever reason—and his motives were as mysterious to Josen in this as in anything else—he counted Chastor Ren among the few men he trusted. Aside from Master Jovert and his physician’s apprentices, assigned to the king’s care by the Tower in Orimscourt, the friendly little chastor had long been the only one allowed to see Gerod when the illness was at its worst.

King Gerod was sitting upright in bed, wearing a loose gown of blue and gold. His blankets were pulled up to his waist. He seemed much recovered, but Josen had already guessed that—his father would never have let Eian and Horte see him otherwise. The illness had stolen much of Gerod’s body away over the last few years, leaving little but bone and sinew, and it seemed like more age spots marred his bald head every day, but his eyes were clear. Clear eyes usually meant a clear mind; Josen cared about little else. In the worst throes of his illness, the king’s fevered, unfocused lectures were unbearable to sit through.

Gerod observed without speaking as Josen moved to stand beside Rudol at the foot of the bed. There was nowhere to sit save for the stool occupied by Chastor Ren—the king kept his bedchambers plain, empty but for the bed, bed-table, and an old wardrobe. Josen crossed his arms and met his father’s eyes with all the defiance he could muster. Gerod only maintained his silence, tapping his bony fingers against his leg as he examined his sons.

Of all the very many things that Josen hated about his father, this was the worst: his complete lack of passion. He had heard stories of a young Gerod, stories of a very different man—a man who had married for love, and refused to dissolve his marriage even when his wife bore him no heirs. A man who had brought boundless wrath down on those who had murdered his queen during the Outer Duchy Rebellion. A man who had ended the lines of the Windwalkers Luthas and Berial for the role those families had played in the rebellion, putting every last scion to death against the protests of the high chastor and many of his own subjects.

Josen didn’t trust such tales. He didn’t doubt the events themselves—those were historical fact—but he couldn’t look Gerod Aryllia in the eye and believe for a moment that the man had ever cared so much about anything. The king had his one true obsession, to be sure: the efficient governance of the Nine Peaks. But he pursued it with a dry, single-minded purpose, and none of the sentimentality he so despised in others. Whatever Gerod’s reasons for extinguishing two Windwalker families, Josen was sure they had been purely practical.

Finally, in a slow, deliberate tone, the king said, “You have embarrassed me.” A long pause before he resumed speaking, his penetrating gaze fixed on Josen. “I suspect you know this. I suspect you do not care.”

“You suspect correctly.” Josen ignored the sidelong glare Rudol directed at him for that. Gerod, of course, showed no sign of annoyance.

“It does not matter.” King Gerod ceased tapping his leg and raised his hand to lay one long finger against his chin. “It was my own mistake to let things go this far. I humored your little adventures for too long. I had hoped that you would come to your senses on your own, given time—you showed at your wedding how poorly you respond to… demands. But lack of punishment has only made things worse, it seems. If you are determined to be contrary, I am left with no choice.”

Even after five years, hearing his father speak of the wedding in such a calm voice made rage boil up Josen’s throat. As though it was nothing. As though it didn’t matter that he had been pushed toward a marriage he hadn’t asked for, that Shona would never talk to him again. There hadn’t actually been a wedding, not really; he’d fled the Keep hours before the ceremony. It hadn’t taken the guards long to find him, but Duke Falloway was too proud a man to give his daughter’s hand in marriage after such an insult—an insult grave enough to end a friendship between the king and the duke of Greenwall that dated back to the Outer Duchy Rebellion.

It wasn’t fractured alliances that concerned Josen, though. It was the hurt in Shona’s eyes that haunted him still.

That was your fault, not mine. He glared at his father, and barely fought back the urge to shout the words aloud. She was my friend—she was never supposed to be my wife!

Gerod paid Josen’s fury no mind, if he noticed at all. “I have dealt with Cer Horte—a man who understands the value of silence, I think. But word of these recent incidents has already spread too far.” He stopped to cough into his hand. “I cannot allow the people to think my heir does not support the Knights of the Storm, not after the attack on Greenwall.”

“What, then? A public apology? Would you have me stand on the Orator’s Rise and make a speech about the valor of the knights?” Josen laughed bitterly. “You know, of course, that you will have to chain me there first.”

The king shook his head. “No. I have spoken to Cer Eian. You will accompany him back to Greenwall and train with the knights for the rest of the cycle. Duke Castar will be leading a purge of the Swamp on Aryll’s Rest, and you will accompany him.”

Josen’s mouth opened, but no words came. The walls seemed to advance inward, and for just an instant, he was absolutely certain that the Keep itself was trying to grab him in a stone fist. He looked at his father in disbelief, and then to Chastor Ren, hoping for some sign that this was a farce, a test. But Mulley just returned his gaze apologetically and gave a slight nod.

I can’t go to Greenwall. I can’t. Shona would be there, and that was more than he could take even without adding a raid in the Swamp.

Rudol seemed as appalled as he was. “Father, this is not wise. Josen is not prepared for—”

Gerod cut him off. “Then you will help him prepare. Both of my sons will be a part of this purge. No one will doubt our resolve then.”

“But, he…” Rudol stammered helplessly, casting his incredulous gaze back and forth between Josen and the king. “He isn’t…”

If his eyes bulge out any more, they’ll explode. He truly hates the idea of me in his precious Stormhall. It would have been insulting if Josen hadn’t agreed so thoroughly.

The king waved a dismissive hand. “Enough, Rudol. You will do as I say.”

And Rudol was, as ever, obedient. His shoulders slumped and he dipped his head in defeat. “Yes, Father.”

“No!” The word shot from Josen’s mouth like an arrow. “I won’t do it!” He gestured at Rudol. “Isn’t one prince killing swamplings enough?” Hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop the swampling girl’s big dark eyes from replacing Shona’s in his memory. He had saved her from harm once; would he be able to kill her if they met in the Swamp? He didn’t think so, not now that he had looked in those eyes. So what does that make me? A traitor?

“You are my heir,” Gerod said. “Rudol is not. The people do not look to him.”

“I am not a warrior. If I die down there, Rudol will be your heir.”

“You will come to no harm; you will not be near the fighting. It will be enough for you to go at all.”

“I will not go!”

“You—” Gerod’s voice choked off, and he doubled over in his bed as a coughing fit took him. Flecks of blood and phlegm spotted the sheet over his lap as he blindly groped for the handkerchief at his bedside; Chastor Ren quickly grabbed it and placed it in the king’s hand. Gerod covered his mouth until he had mastered himself, then dabbed the red from his lips and looked at Josen again. “You will—” But the coughing took him again before he could get the words out.

Watching him try to speak through the convulsions was satisfying, in a perverse way. Josen knew it was cruel, but he also knew—or could guess—what his father was going to say, and he very much did not want to hear it.

“Majesty, if I may?” Chastor Ren’s voice was soft and a bit apprehensive.

The king nodded, still coughing, and motioned for the little man to speak.

Chastor Ren turned his eyes—two plain grey and one, at the center of his circlet, piercing gold—toward Josen. “Prince Josen, perhaps it would be good for you to spend some time with the Knights of the Storm. You have only seen them here in the Plateaus, far from their battlefields. In the Swamp you will witness firsthand the good work they do to protect us from the swamplings and the Deeplings. Surely you see that we would not long survive without them? It is all as the Wind wills it.” Mulley glanced upward, touched two fingers to the eagle’s eye on his circlet, and breathed, “Auna Celyn.” Praise the Sky, in the chastors’ Highspeech—the phrase that ended prayers and sermons. The only bit of the language Josen—or most anyone outside the Convocation—knew, aside from chastor itself, which meant something like speaker of the Word.

“What if…” Josen hesitated. He knew that what he wanted to say would not be well received, but he wouldn’t get a better opening. “What if I don’t see that?”

Chastor Ren wrinkled his brow in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“What if the swamplings are… less dangerous than we think?” The girl in the tavern hadn’t seemed dangerous. At least, I don’t think she did. Wind of Grace, let her not be dangerous. “Maybe they were once, but… it has been hundreds of years. And the Deeplings hardly need anyone to tell them to attack. They’re beasts; maybe they’re just hungr—”

“Enough!” Rudol’s face was flushed bright red. “This is blasphemy! The Word of the Wind is clear: the swamplings learned their deepcraft from Dalleon himself. They command the Deeplings. And even without that, they would not be innocent. They spill our blood as much as we spill theirs. They would destroy us if we let them. Do you think that we hunt them for sport?”

“No, I just…” I just don’t want to believe that girl will come back to hurt us. I just don’t want to fight in the Swamp. I don’t want any of this! But he couldn’t say that; Rudol wouldn’t understand or care. His father certainly wouldn’t. Nothing Josen said would convince them.

It was too late anyway; the king had recovered, and he spoke before Josen could. “Rudol, Mulley, leave us. I would speak with my son alone.” Even as hoarse and weak from coughing as it was, his voice did not allow for argument.

Rudol looked from Josen to their father, closing and opening his big fists as though fighting the urge to choke one of them. But he never disobeyed the king. After a long silence, he bowed and stalked out of the room, with Chastor Ren close behind.

Gerod watched them leave, then turned his eyes back to Josen. “I know you think that I am… a cold man. A king cannot let his emotions interfere with his judgement. That does not mean I do not have them.” His fingers tapped against his leg again now, a bit faster and harder than before. “I tire of these arguments, Josen. I tire of trying to make you act as the heir to the throne should.”

“Then stop trying.”

“You have far too much of your mother in you.” The pace of the tapping increased more still, and Gerod muffled a cough with his other hand. “You will do this. I am not giving you a choice.”

“Don’t you dare talk about my mother. She was what you made her—and I would rather be too much like her than anything like you!” The room felt smaller than ever—a trap closing around him. Josen burrowed his fingers into his hair and looked toward the window, but the outside world was hidden behind closed shutters. “And if I am like her, then you know I won’t do what you want. If you send me to Greenwall, I’ll only run away, as far and as often as I can. Explain that to the people.”

“You will do this!” Gerod slapped his hand down on the bed with surprising force, and Josen jumped back, startled. He hadn’t expected to get any kind of reaction—he rarely did—but there was anger in his father’s eyes now, old and deep and hard. “You will do this, and you will do it with grace! You will attend the Falloways, as is proper. You will be a dutiful student. You will show nothing but support for the knights. You will not be caught in bed with one of your women while you are there. You will do this, because if you do not, I will see that you never leave this keep again.”

The force of the words set him coughing once more, but not for long this time. He composed himself with a long, ragged breath. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and cold, and every word brought the walls closer. “I will put you under guard at all hours. I will devote every man in the Royal Swords to it if I must. If you do not do as I say, you will never again know the freedom you hold so dear until I am dead and burned. Do you understand me?”

Stone loomed in on Josen from all sides; he could barely breathe. His legs urged him to turn and run, but there was nowhere to go. The Keep had him, and it would only surrender if he did. So, with his throat fighting every syllable, he said the only thing he could say:

“Yes, Father.”

———

If you liked this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com

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