“I will go with you, Father,” Logan spoke up, just as Alistair started to argue back. The three paused and glanced at him. Aisling watched with interest. She expected him to back down—he didn’t seem quite man enough yet to hold his own—but he lifted his chin and returned their stares with a bold one of his own.
Alistair looked at his son as if seeing him for the first time. A flicker of emotion crossed his face, and he groaned. “If you come with me… I would prefer Aisling and Sophia not go alone.”
Aisling shut her eyes. “I will go with Sophia,” she said, and instantly had a foul taste on her tongue.
When she opened her eyes a moment later, everyone was gawking at her. Sophia could barely hide her distaste and stared with a horrified grimace.
Alistair opened his mouth, but before he could even make a sound, Sophia blurted, “But why?”
“Alistair does not want either of us searching alone,” she snapped, shooting the woman a glare. “Logan cannot be on his own; he does not have enough experience. Alistair cannot be on his own. Clearly the only one who can is Lord Hession, which means you and I must go together. Surely you can withhold your immaturity for the few hours it will take to find Riane?”
Sophia’s expression clouded and turned dangerous. “Sure I can. Let’s git on wi’ it, dragon lady.” Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her trousers, she skulked off.
Aisling let out a long breath. What had she got herself into?
“We will look in the inner courtyard to begin with,” she said, and followed Sophia through the gate.
Inside the walls of the fort, the courtyard was cast in shadow. Weeds and vines had long since reclaimed the ground and much of the crumbling walls, but still visible were the remains of barrels and stone podiums. Together they walked around the perimeter of the courtyard, moving slowly so they didn’t miss anything.
It was silent save for their footsteps crunching over twigs and rocks; just beyond the courtyard was the wind whistling through the firs, and the faint sounds of male voices patrolling the outside of the fort.
Everything went fairly well until they finished scanning the courtyard and reached the first rotted door into the building itself. As they stood there, staring into the dark, Sophia asked, “Why’s it you hate me, dragon lady?”
“Why do you suppose?”
Sophia rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet and tilted her head to the side. Loose locks of greasy raven hair fell into her face, but she left them. “Canton ain’t even yer home. Yer from the Fells. Why should it even matter?”
“You made living in Canton dangerous for everybody,” Aisling pointed out. “Riane and I lived in Augustine until she was six; we witnessed the brutality of the Reclamation. We only left a year before it finished.”
“Livin’ in Canton was dangerous for everybody well before I got to it,” she remarked, and finally pushed back her hair. Aisling eyed her narrowly; she hadn’t known Vincent Henson and had met him only twice, but everybody generally agreed that he was a fair enough ruler, for a pirate king, and he was educated and polite.
But he was ruthless. Cutthroat. Those attributes shone in his daughter.
“Saeed once told me that he’n Alice talked right after Da died,” she continued, seemingly oblivious to Aisling’s stare. “’Bout what t’do wi’ me. Saeed said they knew soon as folks found out Da died the whole country’d be in chaos.” She turned and her stony grey stare seemed to freeze Aisling to the spot. Somewhere beneath her brusque exterior, Sophia Henson was a very clever woman. “You lived there. It was the true meanin’ o’ anarchy. People only stayed in line before Da died ‘cause they was scared o’ him. O’ his wrath.
“Y’know, dragon lady, I was given the choice?” She stepped up the stone stairs to the door and pushed on what remained of the door. The rusted hinges creaked, but gave. “’Fore he died, Da and Saeed decided to let me choose what t’do with me own future. Alice was in on it, too. I could let Alice adopt me, become a princess, an’ live safe and demure forever. Or I could do as me da did, an’ conquer Canton by force. Become so powerful no one had any choice but to listen.
“Last time Canton had a legal leader was back when it was a Lounian colony. Ever since, it’s been every man for himself, ‘til the pirate kings showed up. Imagine a smuggler wi’ so much wealth’n power he governs a country?” She drew her fingertips down the rotted door, pulling damp wood beneath her fingernails. “Bein’ a princess is every girl’s dream. Saeed used to call me Princess Sophie. But soon as they told me my options, I knew what I wanted. Fosterin’ wi’ Alice is one o’ the best things I ever did, but takin’ back Da’s country was better. The sea’s in my blood. Canton is my land.”
She sighed and peered into the fort. Aisling still watched from the courtyard, eyes narrow and suspicious.
“Talk all you like ‘bout how bad it was livin’ durin’ the Reclamation,” Sophia said, glancing back at her. “Riane’d be dead if I didn’t take back the country. ‘Member them mobs that would keep the city awake at night, wi’ the torches and swords?”
Something stuck in her throat. Still staring at Sophia, Aisling forgot to be angry. “Yes,” she whispered.
Sophia smiled, but it was a cruel act. She was telling the honest truth, and she knew it. Aisling knew it. “They killed more abominations than I can count. The Reclamation was bloody, but it saved the life o’ yer mistake.” She looked at Aisling for a moment longer, as if considering other ways to wound her.
Aisling broke eye contact first. Her heart was fluttering against her ribs like a demented butterfly. Had she and Riane truly come so close to discovery—and execution?
Sophia grunted and pushed the door open the rest of the way. It creaked and groaned, and her boots scuffed on the stone floor as she ventured into the room. “Well, that’s that. C’mon, dragon lady.”