She frowned. “Just what are you planning?”
“Settle River into Lark’s place,” I said. “Then meet me at the barracks as soon as you can.”
Bella nodded, but I could see she was not convinced and that worried me. Would she fight at my side, or fight against me?
There was only one way to find out.
stood in the center of the barracks training room. Weapons lined the walls, ready to be pulled and used to defend the Rim at a moment’s notice. From swords to axes, bow and arrow to spears, there was no shortage of weaponry.
I tallied the numbers of the Enders and Rim guards.
Ten Enders, most of them new to the calling.
Twenty Rim guards.
We’d not use up even half of the weapons on the walls around us. There was a time when the blacksmiths’ fires had burned hot all day as they tried to keep up with the need for new blades and arrowheads as they were constantly being broken in the training of new Enders and Rim guards.
The numbers of the protectors of the Rim were . . . low at best. While I’d been searching for Lark the last two years, the trainers I’d left in charge were supposed to be building those numbers up. I looked to my two replacement trainers, Elk and Dreg. “What in the seven hells have you been doing the last two years?” I snapped as I paced the room.
Elk didn’t slump, but Dreg did. “You don’t understand, being an Ender takes more than—”
“I damn well know what it takes to be an Ender. I’ve been training them for years,” I growled. I rolled my shoulders. Any of the other elemental families would have at least triple those numbers at a minimum.
“What really happened?” I spun and pinned Elk with a stare. He held my gaze, but barely, as the pulse in his throat jumped and bobbed.
“The king commanded that we stop actively recruiting. We tried to work around him, Ash. But he threatened us with banishment. The best we could do was train up those we already had in the program and hope that nothing ever came our way where we would need to truly defend our family.”
I ran a hand over my face as a soft footstep turned me around. Bella stood in the doorway wearing a deep red dress the color of blood. Suitable for the situation . . . had she guessed what I was about? Her hair was pulled up in a tight bun so not a single strand escaped it, and her eyes were lined with a pure black that only highlighted how very dark her own eyes could be in certain lights.
“Did I hear that correctly? My father has actively denied the recruitment of guards and Enders?” She stepped farther into the room, her skirts swishing along the floor, stirring up the hard packed dirt.
Elk nodded and inclined his head to her. “Yes, Princess. That is true.”
I clenched my jaw. That was all there was to it. Now was the time to act, and try to bring things in line once more.
“All of you, listen up. Our king is ill. Sick in the mind as a result of Cassava’s tampering. This sickness will be the death of our family if we allow it to continue.”
The group nodded, and I locked eyes with each guard and Ender one at a time, seeing in them all the understanding of what I was putting forth. “We are the protectors of our family, against all threats. Both from outside the Rim and from within.”
One by one they went to a knee until I was ringed by the best fighters in our realm. By the last fighters in our realm.
I looked at Belladonna. “Bella . . . I do not want you to be culpable in this on the chance that something goes wrong, but you do need to know it is coming.”
Her eyes widened. “You are planning a coup.” Not a question, a statement. I nodded once.
“Yes. You are the heir to the throne. This needs to be done, and done fast before he finds out what we plan. Once you are queen, you can lift the banishment on Lark and bring her home.”
Bella drew a deep breath. “Ash, this is dangerous. If you fail, you will be executed. Or worse, banished.”
I went to the wall of weapons and began to pull them down, handing them to the guards and Enders as they approached. “I know, but this is my job. To protect my family.”
The weapons were dispersed quickly, efficiently. I checked my own swords strapped to my sides. “I do not want to kill him, Bella. But please understand that if he forces my hand, I will. I will do what I must to protect you all.” And to bring Lark home. There was no cost too great in my eyes.
Her dark brown eyes fluttered shut and tears squeezed out from under the lashes. “I understand, Ender.”
I had to make sure those with me truly understood just how serious this was. I faced Bella and went to one knee and began to speak the Ender’s vow taken when a new king or queen rose to the throne, or when an Ender emerged from their final trial. Within seconds, the rest, even the Rim guards, followed suit. Their words wrapped with mine into a swell of resolve and strength that made me proud, and more than that, hopeful.
“I swear to put your life above mine, my Queen. I swear to protect our family, the Rim, the world of elementals even unto death and on penalty of the mother goddess denying me the last embrace of her arms. I do this willingly, and with all my heart and soul.” I stood slowly and then bowed at the waist. “My Queen.”
The Enders and Rim guards did the same, solemn in their actions. She touched me on the shoulder as I passed, stopping me. She said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes. To wish us luck would condemn her, yet there was hope in her that we would succeed. That we could help her take the throne and end this madness her father had foisted on his people.