Ivan Finley walked quickly through the crowded streets of Bosc. He attracted many looks from passer-bys. Perhaps it was his high brow or his steady, firm gaze. Or it could have been his freshly waxed boots or the glimmering of his expensive cloak, both of which spoke volumes of his social standing and his wealth. Either way, Ivan didn't seem to notice or care that people watched him brush by. He seemed oblivious to the hopeful glances of many a young woman. His long, red cloak swished behind him as he weaved through the jostling people, hurrying from stand to stand in the large market. In fact, the only time Ivan Finley appeared to take the slightest interest in anything about him was when he neared a rickety table just erected that morning, nearly buckling under many miniature mountains of apples.
"But, m'lords, please," wheezed a stooped man, whose entire frame seemed to vibrate with every word, "please, don't take them all! I must make a living, Sir Adrian!"
Before the poor man's stand stood five knights, loading apples in large satchels. The fifth smirked at the man.
"Come now, dear fellow," Sir Adrian Bayard simpered. "Us knights are spending valuable amounts of time and energy to look after poor fools such as yourself. It only makes sense that you repay us." Bayard shook the man's shoulder slightly like a friend sharing a joke, but he laughed harshly, his eyes cold. The four other knights laughed.
Ivan jerked to a stop and watched the knight continue to pat the tiny man on the back, making him quiver worse than ever.
"It's our right to take whatever we like," Bayard continued with a sharp grin, fingering the hilt of the sword at his hip. "But if you are so attached to your apples, perhaps I would be content with your granddaughter instead?" Bayard leered at the girl shivering behind her grandfather.
The farmer's forehead immediately beaded with sweat.
"No-no, m'lords! Take the apples! Take all of them, please!"
Bayard and the knights laughed loudly, making those around them turn and stare. They loaded their satchels and Bayard snickered and winked at the girl, now white as old oatmeal.
It took a moment before Ivan realized he was still standing frozen, glaring in fury at the pitiful farmer. Grinding his teeth so much that his jaws hurt, he forced his legs to move. With a bitter taste twisting his mouth into an ugly frown, he turned from the scene and resumed his trek. He quickened his pace and left the large crowds as he turned sharply off the main road onto a narrower one. He nearly flew down it, his shiny boots clattering loudly on the cobblestone. Next, he hurried down a section of steps, the noise of the main road more muffled with each step he took.
For someone who hadn't been the slightest bit interested in his surroundings, he suddenly spent a good deal of time looking over his shoulder. The steps ended at a quieter street. He passed bolted doors before halting suddenly, his cloak swishing violently about him, as he stared intensely down the street behind him and up at closed, dirty windows. The street was empty. Ivan continued on his journey.
He was now rushing down a dirty alleyway. The stench of rotting food hung heavy in the air and a rat scurried under an upturned basket, torn and stained with mud. Ivan Finley stopped halfway down the quiet alleyway before a heavily bolted door. His eyes lighted upon a muttering old woman, shuffling at the other end of the alley as he knocked thrice on the splintered door.
"Who's there?" grunted a voice through the door.
"Ivan Finley," Ivan whispered to the door, his eyes still on the murmuring woman.
The door creaked open and Ivan stepped over a dark threshold. The smell of mildew and dust nearly overpowered his senses. Ivan wrinkled his nose.
"Why do we have to keep coming here, Garren?" he asked in aggravation.
"Because the knights haven't searched it yet, that's why." A gruff-looking man closed the door behind Ivan, throwing them into even deeper darkness. He was powerfully built with large arms and shoulders. A thick, brown beard covered half his face. "The meeting's started. What kept you?"
"Got a little distracted."
"You weren't followed?" Garren asked sharply.
"Good." Garren started walking down a set of warped stairs with Ivan close behind, "I don't care to think what Adam would have done if you had been."
"Bit testy today, eh?"
In the dark, Ivan couldn't see Garren's face, but he had the feeling Garren had rolled his eyes.
"Testy doesn' describe it."
They had reached the end of the stairs and stood before a closed door. Muffled voices issued from behind it. Garren half turned to Ivan and said with a twisted smile, "Get ready."
He opened the door and the stairway was flooded with light from the room before them. Loud, arguing voices pounded against Ivan's eardrums. The room looked more like a cave, with its low, dirty, stone walls.
A rusty wagon wheel, adorned with stubby candles, hung from the smoke stained ceiling, illuminating a crowd of men gathered around a large wooden table that took up the most of the room.
"But we can still go forward with the plan," argued a young man with copper hair. He stood at one end of the table.
"And get ourselves killed?" replied an irritable voice.
"Vin, if we don't then countless months of planning will have been for naught!" shot the young man.
Ivan inched along the edge of the room toward his empty seat while Garren closed the door and took his own. Ivan sat next to the youngest man in the room. He had sandy-blonde hair that was slightly curly. He shot a questioning glance at Ivan, but Ivan jerked his head slightly and turned his attention to the argument between Egan and Vin.
"Yes, Egan," Vin said icily, "but are countless months of planning more valuable than our heads? The knights have gotten wind of the attack. It would be suicide."
"Jacob risked his life to be heard!" Egan continued heatedly. "He should not rot in the dungeons!"
"He should not have been stupid enough to get caught."
"That's enough, Vin," said the oldest man in the room. "Egan, Vin is right. We cannot possibly continue with our plans for freeing Jacob. The risks are too great."
Egan seemed to deflate. Not looking at anyone in particular he sat down and glowered at a small burn in the worn table. There was a momentary silence, then …
"What took you?"
Ivan turned his attention to the man sitting at the opposite head of the table: Adam Thain. His muscled shoulders and hard eyes made it clear he was not a man to be crossed.
"Nothing to worry about," Ivan answered, shrugging, as if he didn't mind Adam's harsh tone. "Slight distraction. That knight Bayard was bullying another farmer."
An angry murmuring sparked around the table.
"We must do something!" an angry man exclaimed.
"What can we do, Daniel?" the old man beside him asked.
"Something, Cian, something! I'm tired of watching knights abuse our families and take our gold! Another house was burned because the owner refused to call that-that creature 'His Majesty!' What use are we if we stand aside and do nothing? We are acting like cowards!" Daniel slammed his fist on the table.
"The knights are livid from Jacob's writings. They are looking for any excuse to lash out at the people," said Cian.
Ivan lowered his eyes, fighting the shame that ate at his insides. He could have forced Bayard away from the farmer, he could have …
"What use would you be Daniel, if you were locked in the dungeon?" the young man beside Ivan asked quietly.
All eyes focused on the youngest of their group who was staring at Daniel.
"Not much use at all," he continued, answering his own question.
"We are doing what we can," Galen spoke over Daniel's feeble attempt to argue. "If we attacked every single knight on our own or at the spur of the moment, then we wouldn't be here right now. We'd all be sharing cells on the bottom-most floor of Bosc Castle."
"Galen's right," said Cian to the sudden stillness. "We're getting to the knights, there's no doubt about that. Molick is making it his top priority to have us snuffed out. We have made progress—"
"But not enough!" shouted Egan, thumping his fist on the table.
Silence settled once more on the seated men. Garren cleared his throat.
"We could try talking to the king again? Surely he can't be happy with the knights."
"We've already tried that," Vin snapped angrily. "And if you remember, the letter was supposedly ripped apart and burned. I don't think he's interested in speaking to us."
"Maybe we should try again," Garren growled.
Vin glowered at Garren.
"King Salir is either too stupid or too scared to act against Molick," Vin stated harshly. "It's obvious who's running the kingdom. Romore is just his puppet in fancy clothing. We'd be wasting our time."
"I have an idea," Ivan spoke suddenly.
His heart was racing. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears. He knew that he was probably going to be laughed and sneered at, but at least he wasn't the youngest in the room. He was ahead of Galen by four years.
All eyes had turned to him and his pulse quickened under the intense gazes.
"Well, speak young Ivan," said Cian Raghnall impatiently.
Ivan swallowed, his eyes darting from face to face.
"Find the heir to the throne."
There was silence so complete one would have thought the room was empty. Galen first looked shocked and then smiled in mock exasperation. But there was a bark of laughter that shattered the heavy silence.
"Find the heir to the throne?" Vin repeated, leaning over the table to get a better look at Ivan. "You must be joking? She's dead."
But Ivan was ready for this; he had been planning this very conversation for days.
"Her body was never found."
Vin laughed even louder.
"Do you hear him?" he cried, turning to the others. "Where exactly did you get that information, boy? She's buried beside her dead mother and father."
"Why was no one allowed to witness it?" Ivan shot loudly over Vin's continued chuckles. "Why was no one allowed to pay homage to it? Why were the catacombs shut off from visitors?"
"Her body may have been too mangled for—"
"Vin," Adam cut in sharply, a warning in his voice.
Vin fell silent but continued to sneer at Ivan. But Ivan stared at Vin with the intensity of a mind reader.
"So you don't believe she died of a fever?" Ivan asked him.
Vin shrugged dismissively.
"I don't believe anything that comes out of Romore's mouth," he replied, his tone icy.
There was a slight pause as Ivan breathed deeply through his nose. The others seemed to be holding their breath, their eyes darting from Vin to Ivan.
"I have heard rumors," Ivan continued, looking around the table at the other members. "Rumors that I believe the knights have not gotten wind of … yet. The people are clinging to this hope as if it is their last breath." He felt a rush of anger as Vin rolled his eyes. "You have heard them, Galen! You all have heard the rumors. They are whispered. They are spoken only in the most extreme of confidences. The people guard this one hope as intensely as any member of their families. Is it so hard to believe, to hope, that she is still alive?"
Vin was scratching his chin, gazing at the wagon wheel above his head. He had obviously stopped paying attention to Ivan, but Cian frowned at Ivan across the table.
"If she was alive, and we found her, our task would still not be easy," the old man stated. "She would be in more danger than any one of us if Molick discovered she was alive and threatened to take the throne."
"What do we have to lose?" Ivan asked quickly, glad that Cian wasn't on Vin's side. "We can sit here and plan and plot and not do anything or we can look for the princess and continue to plan and plot."
Cian smiled slightly and turned to Adam.
"What do you think, Adam?"
Adam frowned deeply.
"It's a long shot—a very long shot. How do you plan on finding her—if she is alive at all?"
Ivan leaned forward, heart racing in excitement.
"I'd love to get someone inside the castle—someone posing as a servant to ask questions, discreet ones—find the people that were there the night it happened—discover what information has been hidden from the people about her so-called death."
Ivan searched Adam's face, but he couldn't decipher an answer.
"Who all agrees?" Adam finally boomed across the table.
Ivan smiled triumphantly as he watched the nodding heads—all except Vin who looked like he'd swallowed a lemon.
"It is settled. Ivan, begin your search. Meeting's adjourned."
Ivan was amazed his plan had worked. Galen caught his eye as they rose together and followed the others up the stairs.
When the group of men reached the landing, they waited in line while Garren opened the door every few minutes, so that they could leave alone or in pairs. This precaution had to be enforced, no matter how irksome it was. They were a rebel group, formed by Adam Thain and Cian Raghnall. The two men had been acquaintances for many a year before the Kellen Royal Family's tragic deaths. But it was five years after Salir Romore had taken the throne that Adam and Cian had first discussed the idea of a rebel group. Times were turning dangerous and they didn't see any of that changing in the near future. Ridiculous laws had passed, taxes had increased to the point of thievery, and those who spoke out were beaten or thrown in the dungeons.
When Salir Romore had taken the throne, Lenzar had been in a state of uncertainty and despair. Their king and queen were dead. And then shortly thereafter, the little princess had succumbed to a fever.
It was hard to pinpoint when exactly the changes started. First came the new laws. For safety, the people could no longer visit the catacombs beneath the castle's floors. They were too dangerous, King Salir had explained. Bosc Bell Tower, a common retreat for the people with its spellbinding view of Bosc and the ocean, was prohibited after a castle servant jumped to her death shortly after the little princess died sixteen years ago. A knight was stationed outside its circular stairway night and day.
Then the taxes increased and the knights began refusing to pay for food or drink, saying they would take what they wanted as payment for their service to Lenzar.
The months and years passed, with the knights becoming bolder. Fights began in alleys, where the knights often left their victims bleeding on the cobblestones. The king was seen less and less. Instead, Illius Molick, the captain of the knights, took the reins, or at least, that was what the people suspected.
The people supposed that the knights had finally reached a point where they knew no one could stop them. In a horrible display of where the power now lay, the knights smashed and crushed each statue of King Sebastian and Queen Amara in Bosc. They removed paintings of them from shops and homes, only to rip and burn them in the streets. In hurt and anger, writings appeared—Patrick Falk, a very well respected voice in Lenzar, leading the charge—criticizing the new wave of violence. The pamphlets were circulated across the country, the people's voices rising in rebellion. But then the knights came and searched all the homes in Lenzar. They burned every copy and threw the printer and as many of the writers they could find in the dungeons. Patrick Falk was beheaded, thanks to a new law that any ill word against the king or knights was treason, and punishable by death. The streets of Bosc were silent as Falk's head was displayed by gleeful knights. The silence grew as the head was transported to all the towns and cities of Lenzar.
But not all of Falk's pamphlets had been destroyed. Some very few had been hidden successfully during the burnings and were heavily guarded by their owners.
After five years of torture, it was time to act.
Adam and Cian carefully sought out people that would be interested in a rebellion. This had to be done painfully slowly, for the knights—as greedy and barbaric as they were—still had eyes and ears.
There had already been many poorly planned skirmishes between the people and the knights, though they usually didn't last long and the outcomes were predictable. Those fools that weren't killed in the fight were taken to the dungeons. There was never a discussion or announcement of how long they would be imprisoned and the knights didn't allow visitors.
The people were divided as to who to blame. Some believed the king was behind it all. He is the king! they would exclaim. But others had their doubts. They watched Illius Molick strut about the city like a king. They watched him order the searches for rebellious writers or fighters. They did not doubt that if Salir Romore was weak, he would be easy to bend—easy to be put to use by Illius Molick
The line had dwindled and Ivan and Galen were at the door now. They were last and the only person in front of them was Vin. Garren opened the door for him and Vin brushed past without a word. Ivan frowned after him. He had disliked Vin Connolly since the first time he had met him. Garren nodded at Ivan and Galen and let them leave the dilapidated building.
They took a few steps down the deserted alley before Galen said, "That was quite a speech."
"But they all agreed, didn't they?" Ivan said happily. "The only one who gave me any trouble was that bastard Vin." Ivan actually took a skipping step and Galen chuckled.
Galen looked causally around and Ivan knew he was searching for knights.
"So, when do you leave to find your spy?"
They had climbed some steps and entered a more active street.
"As soon as possible. Maybe even tomorrow. You should come!"
Galen shook his head.
"Sorry, Ivan, but no can do. Mom wants me at the inn all day tomorrow."
"Have you still not told her?" Ivan asked, suddenly demanding.
Galen sighed heavily.
"No, it would kill her."
Ivan exploded immediately.
"We're doing the right thing!"
Galen gave a small smile.
"It would still kill her."
Ivan snorted, his hands deep in his pockets.
"I'm telling you, Galen, when this is all over—when the king is replaced and the knights are reformed—they'll all be thanking us on bended knee."
"Don't speak so loudly," Galen advised softly. His eyes were trained on a knight, but the brute hadn't heard anything as he was busy leering at a girl.
They walked on in silence, Ivan shooting moody glares at the people they passed and Galen focusing on the cobbled road. At the end of the street, they parted, Ivan to the left and Galen to the right.
Ivan now walked down a large road. Heavy stone walls flanked either side, guarding the large houses sitting behind them. He passed these by until he came upon a tall iron gate. He took out a brass key from inside his trouser pocket and opened it. A hand resting on the gate, he looked around. The large lawns were still green but were starting to look pale, and some patches here and there had already turned brown. Red and yellow leaves littered the ground and as he watched, some took flight in a sudden gust of chilly wind. He yanked the gate shut with a loud clatter and turned the key in its lock.
It was near noon. He was sure his mother and father were in the garden having lunch, so he headed in that direction, walking around the large house instead of through it. Yes, there they were, sitting at a small circular table, laden with trays of sandwiches and jugs of juice.
"Ivan!" his mother called happily when she caught sight of him.
"Mother," Ivan nodded.
"Have a chicken sandwich. They're delicious."
"Thank you, maybe later—"
"Have some almond toffee," Mrs. Finley continued, raising a mug of a warm, steaming drink. "Or would you prefer tea?"
"I was actually hoping to have a word with you, Father," Ivan said, looking pointedly at Mr. Finley who was drinking from a glass of wine.
Mr. Finley lowered his glass, but didn't set it down.
"Certainly. If you'll excuse me, Abby dear?"
He rose, glass still in hand and headed into the house, Ivan following behind. They entered a small study that was expensively furnished. Oil paintings of Ivan's grandparents hung on the walls along with glass ornaments, fine dinnerware that Mrs. Finley enjoyed showing off, and a large wooden case of expensive cigars.
"What is on your mind, Ivan?" asked Mr. Finley, sighing heavily as he sat in a large armchair. "And more importantly, what is it you don't want your mother overhearing?"
"I've just come back from a meeting," said Ivan, taking a seat, his voice slightly hushed. He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door.
"Ah!" Mr. Finley leaned forward, his face eager. "You do know that if I was younger and fitter, I would be stuffing it to those knights. Speak, son. Speak! And quickly before your mother wanders in."
Ivan grinned and scooted his armchair closer to his father.
"I told them my plan."
"They've agreed! They're letting me go forward!"
"Well done!" Mr. Finley slapped Ivan's knee. "Congratulations! Pour yourself some wine!"
Ivan happily obeyed.
"So what's next?" Mr. Finley asked as Ivan sat back down. "Where do you go from here?"
"I have to find someone who I can get into the castle," said Ivan. "I was thinking about leaving tomorrow."
"Hmmm," Mr. Finley rubbed his chin, his face serious. "You will of course inform the person of the dangers involved?" Mr. Finley pressed, suddenly stern. "If the knights realized why this person was there … if Molick or Romore ever got a hint, your spy would be dead before you could say almond toffee."
Ivan nodded his head.
"Brenden, what are you two talking about?"
Mrs. Finley had just entered the room and was looking curiously from her husband to her son.
"Nothing, Abby, nothing," Mr. Finley said quickly, flashing a winning smile and straightening in his chair.
Mrs. Finley's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Well, if you're finished, I need to speak to Ivan." She turned her attention to her son. "I need you to go to Clara's in Halspeare and pick up a few blankets; ours are getting a little worn."
"Clara's?" Ivan sputtered. "But why there? They sell blankets here in the city!"
"Clara's are better!" his mother said forcefully. "And anyway, while you're there you can stop in on Miss Coletta. She does so love your visits."
A quaint smile on her face, she turned on her heel and left Ivan with his jaw open in disbelief.
"Clara's?" he rounded on his father. "In Halspeare! That's a three day journey!"
"She's probably hoping the weather will be bad and you'll have to spend the night at Miss Coletta's." Mr. Finley chuckled and gazed at the empty doorway affectionately. "Your mother won't rest until she sees you married."
"I have absolutely no interest in Coletta!" Ivan raged furiously.
"But you must admit she's a charming girl."
"Oh, yes, charming, of that I am certain," fumed Ivan, rolling his eyes. "I just wish she'd try to charm someone else! And what am I going to do about finding my spy?"
"Maybe you'll run into one on the way? Oh, come now," Mr. Finley said, spotting the mutinous look on Ivan's face. "Don't argue with you mother. The sooner you go, the sooner you will be back."
He drained his glass, slapped his own knee and left Ivan alone in the sitting room.