“You were supposed to save me, not suffocate me,” I told him.
Tobias stepped back. “You asked me to.” He reached for my hand to shake it but dropped the clip. I put my foot over it and his eyes widened. “How can I get it now?”
“You can’t. Honestly, Tobias, I don’t ask you for much.”
“That clip won’t make a difference anyway. They claim to have evidence against you. Let me negotiate with them.”
More people continued to fill the clearing, the Bellanders being directed toward the left, the Prozarians standing to the right where more shade was available. Mott and Trea entered the clearing ahead of me, hand in hand. Mott’s injured arm was bandaged but otherwise he seemed to be all right. Trea looked terrified, but Mott’s expression was like stone. We locked eyes, but it did me no good. I could not tell what he was thinking. They found places somewhere behind me, among the Bellanders. I wished Mott would have stayed where I could more easily see him. Not because he could do anything for me, but because I was nervous. So many things could go wrong before this was over.
Darius entered the area next and stood beside the stump of a tall tree that had been smoothed and polished as a sort of podium. I stared directly at him while he took great efforts to look anywhere else. The longer I watched him, the more I saw worry lines forming across his brow and the shadows deepening beneath his eyes. He was alone here, much as I often felt in Carthya, only his situation was far worse. Trea watched over him with all the care and affection of a mother, but he had no one else. I had Imogen and Mott and Fink, and friends beyond that. For all that I had lost, he had lost so much more.
“Darius,” I said, getting his attention. “You were always the better brother, the better person. You didn’t deserve this.”
“Tell me the truth now,” he said. “Do you deserve what you will receive here?”
I hesitated to answer, which cost me the opportunity to ever answer him as I wished to. Shouts and cheers rose up from the Prozarians, who parted for Captain Strick to enter. At least forty other Prozarians followed her, but this new group was different than the others. They were not onlookers; these were vigils who took their places around the perimeter, ensuring that nobody would come or go without their permission.
Strick raised her arms high to get the crowd’s attention, which was hardly necessary since everyone had already gone silent with her arrival. Then she said, “Bellanders, you all know that Darius is the rightful king of a country across the sea, a place known as Carthya. It is a land that has been illegally occupied for some time by a younger brother who obtained his throne through deception and dishonor. As part of an agreement with King Darius, we have brought this boy here, to allow the true king to claim what should be his. Darius will soon reign again beneath the hand of the Prozarian Monarch, over the tribute country of Carthya.”
I coughed, loudly, and she stopped to look at me. “Forgive me,” I said. “But you are pronouncing ‘Carthya’ incorrectly, and I can’t stand it any longer. You spend far too much time on the final vowel. Is that typical of all Prozarians?”
Her face reddened, and she said, “Darius, you asked to run this trial. Do you have anything to say?”
Darius turned back to face me, the intense look in his eyes begging for the answer he wanted. “Will you give me the throne, Jaron?”
I stuck out my jaw. “Under your current arrangement with the Prozarians, no, I cannot.”
His face tightened. “We’ve already discussed this.”
“Then let’s discuss how we might bring freedom to these people. If these are your people now, then tell them they have a chance for freedom!”
Tobias had been standing far to my right but he leaned in and whispered, “Jaron, can we focus on saving you first? Then we’ll save everyone else.”
“Get to his crimes!” Strick snapped at Darius.
“You will stay out of this trial!” Darius responded, a rare show of force from him, and he quickly softened. “You swore that I would conduct this trial, and only me.”
Her eyes flashed, but she gestured toward me with her arm. “Then do it.”
Darius hesitated, then said, “Jaron, from what I’m told, you came to the throne less than two weeks after our parents’ deaths. That cannot be a coincidence.”
“It is not. Tell me, Darius, what do you know about Bevin Conner?”
Darius straightened his spine. “I know he was a great man. He sent me here, which saved my life. I have a letter from him that promises me a king’s inheritance one day, and his assurances that he was a great patriot of Carthya.”
Then he probably did not know that Conner was likely his father. And I’d never get him to believe that someone he clearly respected was responsible for our parents’ deaths.
Unaware of the secrets I was holding in my heart, Tobias stepped forward. “Conner was no patriot. He poisoned the king and queen of Carthya.”
“That’s a lie!” Darius turned to face Tobias squarely. “Conner was one of my father’s regents, and a loyal servant.”
“And he was a murderer.”
“Can you prove this?” Darius’s tone felt like a warning, that if Tobias failed to prove his accusation, he would also be in trouble.
Tobias glanced back at me for support, but I shook my head. This was not how I wanted the trial to go.