“Captain Strick had it.”
“The Prozarians raided this home shortly before they left for Carthya. That box disappeared in the raid, but I wasn’t sure who took possession of it.” She held out her hands for the box, then stared directly at me. “You didn’t open it, did you?” I wouldn’t answer at first, and she said, “Jaron, please tell me you did not open that box.”
I blinked several times, hoping to push away any emotions, but my eyes welled with tears anyway. All I could do was nod.
Trea put a hand to her heart, as if my simple action of nodding caused her pain, and maybe it had. She led me to the corner near the fireplace. “I’m sure you have questions.”
Questions? Did she think this would be so simple that I could ask my question, then walk away, as if my whole world hadn’t just shifted from its axis? This wasn’t only about Darius, it was about lies my parents had told to me, to the entire kingdom. What else had they lied about?
“Give her the box,” Mott instructed.
I untied the rope around my shoulder and slipped the box loose, then placed it in her hands. She brought it to her chest, cradling the box as if it were a long-forgotten treasure. Mott put his arm around her, and when she leaned in to him, he kissed the top of her forehead, whispering that maybe this was for the best.
Finally, she sat on a bench and invited me to join her, which I did. She said, “You were never meant to see this, Jaron. No one was ever meant to see it.”
“Has Darius seen it?”
“You said you’d answer my questions.”
She frowned. “No, I said that I understood you’d have a great many questions. But I’m sorry, I cannot answer them.”
“Then I’ll ask elsewhere.” I began to stand. “Do you want that?”
Mott crossed between me and the door. “Sit down. We’re on your side.”
“Do you know what is in that box, Mott?”
“I know some of it. A letter I once wrote to her.”
“If she told you anything else, I want to know it now. I’m tired of being the last person to hear the truth about my life!”
Behind me, Trea sighed. “Every time Darius described you to me, do you know what word he most often used? Difficult. I didn’t entirely believe him … until now.”
I turned to her, sticking out my jaw. “I’ll be as difficult as necessary until I get my answers. If not from you, then I will ask Darius directly. Is he here?” I looked back at Mott. “You know I will do this.”
His shoulders fell. “You’d better answer his questions, Trea. I’ll get him something to eat.”
Despite the cake I’d recently eaten, I was still plenty hungry. It was enough to get me back onto the bench beside Trea while Mott went to dish me up a bowl of stew, still in a pot hanging over a dwindling fire.
Trea allowed me a few bites before she began. When she did, she started with a deep, anxious breath. “For a long time, your parents were unable to have children. It caused a great concern within the kingdom. Many people said because your mother had no royal blood, the saints would not grant her a child. Then one day, one of your mother’s handmaidens came to her with a proposal. You see, this handmaiden had discovered she was with child, but she was unmarried and without any means to support herself and a child. In desperation, she offered the child to your mother. Your mother not only agreed but welcomed the offer with great enthusiasm.”
I tilted my head. “You were the handmaiden’s nurse?”
“Not exactly. I worked for a regent named Bevin Conner. He knew of the handmaiden’s plight — in fact, he was the one who had suggested this solution to her troubles — and he offered to allow her to remain in his estate of Farthenwood until the child was born, even as Erin remained in seclusion from the public so that there could never be any speculation as to the adopted child’s origins. After the birth, the plan was to allow the handmaiden proper time for recovery, then to bring her back to the castle to continue her duties, and to always be near her child.” A tear fell to Trea’s cheek. “But the handmaiden died during delivery, and so the child — Darius — was seamlessly welcomed as the eldest son of Eckbert and Erin, the crown prince and heir to the throne of Carthya.”
“Why should it matter?” Mott asked. “With his adoption, he becomes a royal.”
“But his birth family does not.” I met his eyes. “Royals have adopted children before, but never an eldest child in line for the throne. If something ever happened to the reigning king and queen, the birth family might lay claim for the throne, shifting the line of succession.”
“Away from you,” Mott murmured.
“Jaron was a great surprise to them, for more than one reason.” Trea’s smile disappeared as she faced me. “When I gave Darius to your mother, she asked me to swear on my life that I would never reveal this secret to anyone. Now that you know, I ask for the same oath, out of respect for your mother’s wishes. Will you honor this secret?”
To honor the secret required me to lie to my own people, and I’d never done that before. I’d have to lie to my closest friends, those I loved.
Imogen. How could I keep such a thing from Imogen?