Another super short chapter—I'm sorry, guys! My husband's grandmother passed away this week, and things have been a little crazy around here. I don't know if I'll get to update next week or not. If not, I'll definitely update for you guys the week after. Thanks for reading! Comments are always welcome :)

Teloris: The Book of the Stars by Elizabeth Frerichs ©2018

Four days after they left the cave, how to help the bandits remained a constant refrain in Seth's thoughts. He'd been waiting for an opportunity to speak with Ryder privately but so far only Jerod had been scouting ahead—the rest of them didn't know the way and Randolph was keeping to the forest.

Tonight they had camped on the lee of a tree-covered hill. After a hearty stew made by Anna and Ilane, Adolf handed out assignments. He'd put Ryder on the first watch—Seth could approach him while the rest of the group slept.

Before everyone left to complete their chores, Seth slid into a seat beside Ilane. "I'm going to ask Ryder how to help the bandits after everyone's gone to bed. Do you want to join me?"

Ilane looked at him, wide-eyed. "Isn't he supposed to be keeping watch?"

Seth blushed. "I'm sure he can talk and keep watch."

"Why don't we ask him now?" she suggested.

"I'd prefer to talk to him privately."

"So ask him for a private word."

Seth hesitated, then agreed. He walked over to Ryder. "Can I have a private word?"

Ryder's gaze flicked from Seth to Ilane and back again. "Is something wrong?"

Seth shook his head. "No, I just had a question, Ilane wants to hear your answer."

Ryder's eyebrows shot up. "Why don't we take a walk? We can gather more firewood."

"All right."

Ryder stood, taking a moment to inform Adolf.

After the three of them walked far enough for privacy, Ryder gestured for the other two to sit, and the three of them settled on the ground.

"How can we help the bandits?" Seth asked.

Ryder leaned back on one arm. "What do you mean?"

"Seraphina was right: the conditions in their camp were deplorable!" Ilane said. "No one should have to live that way."

"They're criminals though," Ryder said, picking a blade of grass and studying it.

"But you said not all of them want to be criminals," Seth protested, leaning forward.

"Aye," Ryder said. "They've still broken the law."

Ilane folded her arms across her chest. "They're people."

"Right," Seth agreed.

Ryder's lips quirked up. "How do you think you can help?"

"They need better food and medical care," Seth said. "We could send them money."

Ilane scoffed. "Money doesn't last. They need an honest way to make a living."

"Like what?" Ryder asked.

"Like land to work or a trade," Ilane said.

"What about those who are too sick to work?" Ryder asked.

Ilane frowned.

Seth brightened. "That's why my mother is so passionate about healers. She believes everyone should be able to get proper treatment to be healthy—especially peasants."

"But does the treasury have enough to provide healers for all the criminals in Teloria?" Ilane asked.

"That is a dilemma," Ryder said.

"Isn't that what taxes are for though?" Seth asked. "To help the entire country?"

Ilane's brow furrowed as she considered what her father spent taxes on—few went to healers. Her father's pet project of bringing masters to the court and allowing for the exchange of information was a costly dream she shared. "But what about funding learning? That's important and helps the whole country."

"Have ye considered what sort of help is helpful help?" Ryder asked, still fingering the grass.

"Helpful help? Isn't help by definition helpful?" Seth asked.

"Some might say so." Ryder twirled the grass. He turned to Ilane. "You said money wouldn't help them—why?"

"Because money's only helpful until after you spend it—then it's gone," Ilane said.

"You could send them money every so often," Ryder pointed out.

Ilane shook her head. "The treasury doesn't have enough money for that."

"What if Dacre sent money too?" Seth suggested.

"Would that make the bandits stronger or weaker?" Ryder asked.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Seth protested.

"When you help someone, you have to consider whether it helps or harms," Ryder said, straightening. "If giving money makes someone weaker, it's not helpful."

Ilane's fingers shook as she recalled how she had developed her strength: all the times someone in the palace abandoned her, all the people who called her "weak" and "worthless." As painful as her maids' neglect had been, she had learned to dress herself—a skill she used every day. And it kept her from pretending life was fair or happy. Her wretched experiences had given her steel and perseverance. Would she be so determined to be queen without them? She shook the thought off, focusing on the present.

"How can giving money make someone weaker?" Seth asked.

"It keeps them dependent," Ilane said, her voice cracking. She cleared her throat, straightening. "It's like helping a butterfly out of its chrysalis—the butterfly needs the struggle to push fluid through its new wings, or it'll be crippled forever."

Seth frowned. "What's a chrysalis?"

"The exoskeleton of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly," Ilane said.

"Leaf-snakes turn into butterflies," Seth said.

Ilane shrugged. "The book I read it in called them caterpillars." She waved a hand. "The terminology isn't the issue—the point is that crippling someone isn't helpful."

Ryder's eyes had been following them like a pendulum swinging back and forth. "You also need to know where people are coming from before you can help them."

"They're bandits," Seth said.

"Aye. But there's more to it than that. Take Olaf for example. He has a broken leg. What does he need?"

"A healer?" Seth suggested.

"Aye. But what else?"

"Food," Ilane said.

"What else?" Ryder asked again.

"A trade?" Ilane suggested.

"He became a bandit because he lost his house."

"Why did he lose his house?" Ilane asked.

"Because he was a carpenter whose work was so poor, he couldn't make enough money."

"Why didn't he find another trade?" Seth asked.

"Why would he?" Ryder argued. "He believed he couldn't succeed at anything honest—why would he put time into learning another trade he'd fail at?"

"You're saying a person can't succeed if they believe they can't?" Ilane asked.

"Belief has much to do with our actions. Olaf never considered another trade—his father chose for him to apprentice a carpenter. When carpentry failed, Olaf's belief kept him from looking for other opportunities."

"So even if we gave him money, he wouldn't try to learn a skill," Ilane said.

Seth frowned. "The money isn't the problem, is it?"

Ryder shrugged. "It's a problem. He can't learn another trade without money to become an apprentice."

"But—" Ilane stared at the ground as though trying to see beneath the surface. "I bet the other bandits have skills they could teach him."

"Ye can't help someone who refuses to be helped," Ryder said. "My—someone close taught me that lesson. Until I was ready to be helped, she couldn't help me."

"How do we know who wants to be helped?" Seth asked.

"Ah, now you're asking the right question," Ryder said, nodding at him in approval. "'Tis a difficult thing to discern. Perhaps this will help ye. Two farmers suffer through a drought. The next spring neither has food nor seed to plant. The crown provides seed for both. One farmer sets aside a small portion to eke out enough food for himself and his family, and he plants the rest. The other farmer sets aside a small portion to plant, and he and his family eat the rest. Which will be in a better place next winter?"

"The one who planted more seed," Seth said.

Ilane nodded. "Both will increase their planted seed ten or twenty-fold, but the farmer who eats most of the seed won't have enough to feed his family over the winter and to plant the following spring. The crown will have to give him seed the following year."

"Give to those who will plant their seed," Ryder said.

"Or teach them to plant the seed," Ilane said. "If the second farmer understood the consequences of his actions, I doubt he would have acted the same way."

"Perhaps," Ryder said. "You can't change people—you can only give them space and information to change themselves." He stood up and dusted himself off. "Now, I believe we need firewood."