There was a twist in the hallway Theodore did not remember. He tried to retrace his steps through the palace back to the entrance and became lost instead. The sprawl of corridors seemed only to grow in complexity as he hurried. Somehow, after a few more wrong turns, he found himself in surrounded by statues. He had wandered into a sunlit courtyard filled with marble figures of Laien’s long history of rulers.
Theodore slowed to a halt, his heard pounding. He no longer knew what to do or which way to go. He promised to help Perceval escape but now the king was ordering him to retrieve him. No matter what he chose to do he was a traitor to somebody.
“Grayweather,” a voice said.
Theodore looked up. A raven peered down at him from atop a statue’s head. Sleek and black with a long sharp beak and sharper eyes.
“And you are…?” Theodore said.
“Call me Whisper.” It spoke with a woman’s voice, thick and amused. “I’ve a message for you.”
That was the same name as the raven that helped the prince escape the castle. But it couldn’t be the same one. Perceval said that raven was killed. Something else was strange. There were wards all over the palace to stop creatures and magic from entering. How did this feral get here?
“Who is this message from?” Theodore said.
“That is a secret. Suffice to say, it is someone with enough power and influence to make the message worth your consideration.” Whisper fluttered down and landed in the open palm of the statue. “Word has it that you despise your position as Ranger Deputy. How would it suit you to choose a new job for yourself? Perhaps one among the University?”
The endless parade of needy creatures had not given any love for his job. It unnerved Theodore to be told his private thoughts. “Where did you hear this?”
“Various eyes and ears,” she said. “The details are unimportant. What matters is that it appears the king has put his faith in you to return his wayward son.” Her eyes focused tight on him. “We would prefer for something else to occur. “
Theodore creased his brow. “Who’s we? What are you suggesting?”
“The king has served long and well, but his son is ill-fit to rule. It is time for new blood to take the throne. The season is ripe for change. Ensure the prince does not return and you will be well-rewarded in the new regime.”
He held back his gasp. “You are asking me to commit treason.”
Whisper cocked her head. “Would it be the first time?”
Theodore felt a cold sweat. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, don’t be dull.” She preened herself. “Anyway. Suppose the prince cannot be found? Who can be blamed? He was always willful. There is only so much you or any of the guard can do. Nothing anyone could do, really. Perhaps it was for the best. The new ruler stands to do more for Laien than old Stonewall or his boy ever could. Seems to me the Mother of Magic fated this all from the start.”
This usurper was a manipulator trying to seize the throne. Disgust welled up inside Theodore, but so did temptation. It would be as easy as the raven said to do nothing. The prince did not want to be found, and Theodore had already compromised his ethics. All he needed to do was sit back and everything would work out for him.
Except that Oboe was in trouble. She faced imprisonment or worse. That was the one thing that burned brightest in his mind amid all the confusion. Oboe needed help and there was only one way to save her: Bring the prince home. He could impose a royal pardon and cancel the trial. That was the answer he was looking for. He shook his head, ashamed of even considering the alternative.
“I won’t be part of your schemes!” Theodore took a swipe at the bird, who flew out of range without effort.
“Tsk. Such loyalty could be better placed!” Whisper circled overhead. “A word of warning: The new order is coming, with or without you! A position of prestige and comfort awaits should you comply. If not, we know where to find you.”
The raven rose into the air and vanished past the rooftops and archways of the palace. Were those last words a threat? It did not matter. The ‘offer’ was beyond consideration. Theodore told himself that any individual who conspired from the shadows did not deserve to rule. Whoever Whisper served, they were wise to remain anonymous. If there was any evidence he could have reported it to the king.
This was just another wrinkle in the growing task ahead. Theodore needed to find the prince, and the only person who could help was locked in a cell.