Roberts the Valiant paces the length of the great, stone gallery, his head bowed. Tousled black ringlets cascade wildly across his forehead, obscuring the angry glimmer of his emerald eyes. He mutters darkly, the words that fall from his lips scarcely audible to anyone but himself. The only sound in the room is the distinct echo of his bare feet slapping against damp stone.
Across the room, shrouded in shadows and still as the stone walls at her back, sits Nerani. Two watery blue eyes stare out of a pinched, white face. Her thick, brown hair is pulled back from her brow in a severe bun. She is flanked on either side by the looming figures of Topan and Orianna, each with similarly stoic expressions frozen upon their features. Orianna’s fingers are clenched tightly together, the long painted violet of her fingernails scourging her flesh.
“Are you quite finished, Roberts?” Topan’s echo rolls softly off of the stone. The flames dance upon their sconces as he takes several steps forward.
Roberts skids to a halt upon the stone, glancing up at the occupants of the room in some surprise. The flickering golden light that stretches across his pointed features causes the room beyond to fade into black. His dark brows draw close together over his eyes as he stares past Topan and towards the two women lingering just behind him.
“Have you finished shouting?” Topan asks again, ignoring Roberts’s continued silence. “Because if you have, I’d rather like to give Nerani a chance to speak.”
Roberts inhales sharply at that, his nostrils stretching as his chest puffs outward beneath his white cotton undershirt. He is teetering dangerously on the edge of losing his composure. Again.
“There is nothing for her to say,” he says through clenched teeth. “What apology can she offer? She robbed me of the chance to avenge my sister. A life for a life—that would be fair.”
“It would be fair if Emerala were dead,” comes Nerani’s voice from the shadows. She had remained quiet all through the shouting—had let Roberts yell until his voice was hoarse. He resents her for her patience. He wants her to jump to her feet and shout back at him—to give him something visceral at which to point his rage. As it is, his temper is slowly abating. His knuckles clench and unclench at his sides, his flesh stretching across bone, discoloring with the strain.
“We’ve been through this before,” he hisses, his voice barely rising above a whisper. He does not finish the thought he started. Emerala is dead. Gone.
He sees a small line of color rise in Nerani’s cheekbones and feels a perverse satisfaction at having finally, finally elicited some sort of emotional reaction.
“Emerala was not killed,” she insists.
“You and Orianna saw her shoved to her knees by three armed Guardians. Surely you remember.” He shoves his palm in Orianna’s direction, urging her to join the conversation. “Orianna, remind her what you saw.”
Orianna’s mouth falls open. She shoots a slanted look in Nerani’s direction before meeting Roberts’s gaze across the dimly lit expanse. “I saw her at the mercy of the three armed Guardians.” She swallows. The intonation of her words has adopted a rehearsed cadence—the result of having been repeated time after time. Her voice is thick. “She called out for us to run. And we did.”
“We did not see her die, Rob,” Nerani insists, rising to her feet. Her cobalt gown murmurs quietly against the floor, the crewel cotton petticoat folding her emaciated figure in numerous folds of fabric. “Those three guardians were found dead only moments later, with no trace of Emerala. The Guardians don’t have her in their possession and they admitted to never killing her, so she must be—”
“They admitted?” Roberts repeats, his tone a mockery of hers. His eyes fall to Nerani’s mangled hand, carefully bound only hours ago by Madame Minera in the infirmary. Already, blood is seeping through the gauze. She lost the fingers, the Madame had said. They were too broken to save.
“I’m sorry,” he says, scowling at her. “I thought it was you who were interrogated, not the other way around.”
“Roberts.” Topan’s voice is dangerous. It slithers across the floor of the room and coils at Robert’s feet—a clear warning. Tread carefully.
“No,” Roberts says, ignoring him. “No, I’m curious. Who is it that told you that? General James Byron?”
A sharp look of discomfort flickers across Nerani’s face and is gone. He remembers the proximity of them in the empty storeroom—remembers the way the general had held Nerani’s gaze. Roberts would have been a fool not to notice the implications. He feels the anger inside him rising into a full boil.
“Is that why you protected him?” he asks, shouting again. “Are you friends now, you and King Rowland’s loyal dog?”
“Why is it so hard to believe that the pirates may have succeeded where we did not?” Nerani is not shouting—not yet—but the tone of her voice quivers with emotion. Her face drains of color and she teeters where she stands. Noticing this, Topan rushes over to her side. His arms enclose about her, steadying her by the shoulders. Roberts watches, seething, as Topan lowers Nerani slowly back into the chair. After she is settled, the deep, indigo eyes of the Cairan king turn back to him.
“You’re done here, Roberts. Thank you.”
Roberts frowns, watching as Topan moves to obscure the figure of his cousin. Over his shoulder, Orianna’s gaze is just as imposing.
“Nerani needs to be brought back to the infirmary. Madame Minera will want to change her bandages,” the woman says. A thin line of worry shoots across her brow as she speaks.
“I’ll take her,” Roberts says gruffly, his mood softening just slightly at the sight of his cousin’s apparent frailty.
“I think you’ve done enough,” snaps Topan. Roberts is startled at the naked disappointment on the face of his friend. “Take a walk. Please.”