A knight does not snivel. That’s what father told him. Theodore thought it was strange how small things like that stuck with him most. He told himself he didn’t give a damn what his father thought, but when the tears welled up he found himself choking them back in shame.
His plan failed. Perceval was gone. The tracker was broken. Oboe’s trial was tomorrow. She was going to die because he was an idiot and chose to help the prince.
Theodore wrenched the tears from his eyes. This wasn’t over yet. He made a mistake thinking he could talk Perceval into returning. There was still a chance. If he found Shelly he could give chase. He’d lost a lot of ground, but the Knight Detective had his own aura tracker. Conrad had the manpower to force the prince to come home.
He ran back the way he came, shouting, hoping the roc was still nearby. “Shelly!!” He hurried along the narrow ledges and outcroppings. “Shelly! Where are you?!” He winded himself shouting. It had been too long and he had wandered too far. Theodore raced as the sky melted into a smoldering orange sunset. The search party was nearby. All he needed was to make sense of the winding trails and meet up with them.
Hurrying in that general direction, Theodore spotted an aura projection spring up from the Earth ahead of him. He moved to follow it, only for the trail to stretch out and come to a halt at his heart. Theodore heard the crunch of marching boots. Conrad Whitechain and a team of armed scouts rounded the corner. The Knights of the Hunt, dressed in camouflage.
“Conrad?” Theodore said. “Thank the Mother! How did you think to come here?”
The Knight Detective watched Theodore with one eye from beneath the brim of his hat. “I’ve been tracking you.” He clicked off the device, and the aura projection faded.
“What? Why?” It did not matter. “Never mind. Listen, the prince should be nearby! I need your help!”
The scouts drew their swords. Theodore stepped back, only to find a steep drop behind him. Conrad gestured for his men to wait.
“Deputy, there are some things bothering me about our time together.”
Theodore felt a sudden, suffocating dread. “What are you talking about?”
“I did not think much about it when you found the culprit so quickly, but I was troubled to learn how… familiar you were with her. A coincidence, I thought, if it had ended there.”
Theodore said nothing.
“My men found Perceval’s cloak in your office. It was drenched in his aura. Suddenly that long, fruitless night wandering the Whirl makes sense.” Conrad adjusted his gloves. “Now I find you out on the farthest edge of the valley after refusing to join the search party.”
“W-what are you saying, Conrad?”
The Knight Detective’s stare pierced through him.
“You’ve been harboring the prince.”
The scouts advanced on Theodore, blades in hand.
“Seize him,” Conrad ordered. “With minimal maiming, if possible.”
“This is ridiculous!” Theodore shouted, backing away along the ridge. It was a long way down if he fell. “The prince is out here! You need only look!”
“That may be the case.” Conrad followed his men at a stroll as they spread out and leapt between ledges to corner Theodore. “This would be an excellent place to stash him here while we wasted our time in the Whirlwood. Do not worry, we will find him yet.”
“You have no proof!” Theodore said, stalling.
“I do and worse. We have a witness.”
“A feral raven. They saw you making deals with Feymire spies.”
“That’s a lie!” Theodore said, as if it made a difference.
“You’ve nowhere to go, Grayweather!” A scout said. “Surrender!”
Theodore tried to run before they closed in on him, but there was too many of them. His hands were twisted behind his back.
“Out of tricks, Deputy?” Conrad said. “I expected more from you.”
Theodore wished he had something more, anything. He felt the sting of his tears return. How could he possibly save Oboe now, let alone himself?
Then it hit him. He did not have to do both. There was one last risky gambit he could play.
“You’ve caught me, detective,” he said. “There’s no use pretending anymore.”
Conrad looked at him with surprise. “Then… you admit it?”
“I was offered power in exchange for making sure the prince did not return.” This much was true. “I… blackmailed the faun to enchant the prince, to sabotage the crown.” All he needed was to shift the blame. Maybe then Oboe had a chance to get out of this alive. If Whisper was going to make up a story, he might as well use it. “I abused my authority as Ranger Deputy to threaten her family. That’s why she wouldn’t help you. She couldn’t.”
Contempt flared across Conrad’s face. “Why, Grayweather? You are the son of a national hero! Why would you turn against your country?!”
Theodore tried to think of a reason, and held back a bitter laugh.
“I told you: I hated my father.”