The Return of Absent Souls – C. J. Archer

The shock of Dane’s arrest at the hands of the Freedland authorities didn’t hit me until Balthazar, Quentin, Erik and I returned to the lair of Max’s former gang where we were temporarily hiding. I managed to keep my hands from shaking long enough to stitch the wound in Erik’s side, but once he fell asleep from the effects of the Mother’s Milk, I finally sat down on the bed beside him and burst into tears. Dane was in a holding cell, awaiting trial for murder; the only way to free him was to use a magic wish. A wish we did not have. “What happened?” Kitty asked as she stroked Erik’s forehead. Meg sat beside me and placed her arm around my shoulders. “Where’s Dane?” I shook my head, too overwhelmed to explain. Besides, Jenny was there. She and Max’s other friends didn’t know about magic, and we wanted to keep it that way. Explaining what happened to Dane would mean revealing his memory loss and his past. “We were set upon by bandits in the street,” Balthazar lied. “There was a fight, and Dane was arrested.” Jenny arched her brows. “Bandits? What’d they look like? Were they real big? Did the leader have a scar down his right cheek? I bet it was the Bruiser gang.” “I didn’t notice,” Balthazar said heavily.

Jenny waited, but Quentin and I didn’t offer answers either. He was crying into Theodore’s shoulder. With a click of her tongue, Jenny left to make us something to eat. “Where are Vance and the others?” Balthazar asked. “Out thieving,” Max said, staring down at Erik. “So what really happened?” “And where is Dane?” Theodore added ominously. “Is he…” He gazed at Erik. “Is he dead?” “Not yet,” Quentin wailed. He pulled away and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “He really did get arrested.

” Theodore, Max and Meg turned to Balthazar, the only one who’d been present and was still capable of speaking sensibly. But even Balthazar seemed overwhelmed by what had happened as he searched for a place to begin. “You went to the house of Tabitha’s parents,” Theodore prompted. Tabitha was a servant from the palace with a missing memory. Quentin had found a poster of her asking for information of her whereabouts. That led us to visit her parents who explained that she was the maid to a wealthy young woman. “Her mistress’s name was Laylana,” Balthazar told the others. Theodore and Max gasped. Laylana was another palace servant who lost her memory; not once, as the others had, but repeatedly. It was wiped every few days and she had to start again, knowing nothing.

She had some sketches and notes to help her, but her situation made her fearful. “So you visited Laylana’s family next?” Meg asked. Balathazar nodded. “Her brother is one of the wealthiest men in Freedland. But the most shocking thing we learned tonight wasn’t that Laylana and Dane were betrothed—” Meg let out a small squeal of surprise, only to quickly cover it with her hand. Her gaze fell on me, as did the gazes of the others. “How is that not the most shocking thing you learned?” Kitty asked carefully. “Laylana’s brother and sister-in-law took us to the house of Dane’s mother, and it was there that we learned Dane is the grandson of the former king.” Meg sat heavily on the bed near Erik’s feet. “He’s Freedland royalty?” “He would be the heir,” Balthazar said.

“If there were a throne to inherit.” “Which there isn’t,” Max added. When no one responded, he tilted his head to the side. “Bal?” “Dane’s mother and some noble families want to overthrow the Freedland republic and restore the monarchy with Dane as king. As a woman, she could not become queen, but ever since Dane was born, she has been grooming him to take up his birthright. His arrest over a year ago and apparent death ended her dreams, but tonight, they reignited upon seeing him.” “Merdu,” Theodore breathed. “That’s why he was arrested, wasn’t it? Because the authorities don’t want the heir to the throne alive. His reappearance could mean the end of the government.” “Another war, at least,” Balthazar said, nodding.

“I don’t know if the royalists have the numbers, though.” “They don’t,” I said, speaking for the first time since Erik had fallen asleep. “When Dane was first arrested, they gave up all hope and disbanded their mercenary forces, so the maid told me. It will take time to gather them again.” Martha had remained behind at the house to await the return of Yelena, Dane’s mother. She had been devastated by Dane’s arrest, whereas his mother had been angry. Yelena had immediately stepped into action to gather support to get him out of the prison, whereas Martha had been a forlorn and lonely figure as we left her at the cottage. “Is that why Dane was arrested the first time and sent to the prison mine to rot?” Meg asked. “Because they learned about his existence?” Balthazar nodded. “Laylana tried to free him, but her attempt failed and she too was sent to prison.

” “Poor Laylana,” Theodore muttered. We fell into silence as weighty as the sadness pressing down on me. The horror and hopelessness of Dane’s predicament had begun to sink in. With his very existence jeopardizing the republic, it made sense that the ministers would want to get rid of him. A conviction for murder would take care of that without raising an eyebrow. He was, after all, supposedly guilty of murdering all those guards in the prison escape months ago. But what worried me now was the speed at which he might be tried, convicted and hanged. The longer they waited, the more time it gave the royalists to gather their forces. If the high minister was wise, he would eliminate Dane quickly. He could be hanged within days, perhaps even tomorrow.

“But how did the authorities learn Dane was the heir?” Meg asked. “Last year, I mean. If he’d been hiding since birth, who told them?” “Perhaps it was a noble family who turned against them,” I said. “Perhaps they thought they were better off under this regime after all.” I shrugged. It didn’t matter. Not now. Getting Dane out was the only thing that we should be worried about. “Josie,” Kitty said in a small voice. “Will Erik…?” Her eyes filled with tears as she blinked down at her lover’s pale face.

He’d lost a lot of blood, but the bleeding had stopped now, thank Hailia. “He’ll survive,” I told her. “He needs to rest and keep the wound clean.” Dane was also injured, having been struck by a sword in his lower back. I’d stitched and bandaged the wound, but keeping it clean in a prison cell would be impossible. “Why didn’t they arrest Dane’s mother?” Quentin asked from where he stood by the bed, sniffling. “Why did they just let her go?” “She’s not a threat,” Balthazar said. “I reckon she’s more of a threat than Dane. He doesn’t want the throne; she does.” “She can’t inherit it, and she’s too old to give birth to more sons.

The threat of her gathering forces will be nullified once Dane is executed.” Quentin’s face crumpled. “Don’t say that! Don’t say he’s going to die, because he’s not! We’ll think of something to get him out. We always do.” He looked to me. “Josie? You’ve got an idea, haven’t you?” I rose and strode towards the door. I opened it without answering him and headed for the room Balthazar shared with some of the other men. I rummaged through his pack until I found the whalebone tube that contained not only our maps, but also the magic gem. A hand clamped over mine before I had a chance to reach into the tube and remove the false base. “No,” Max said quietly.

“Using a wish is the only way!” I cried. Quentin and Meg rushed in, followed by Theodore and finally Balthazar. I couldn’t meet his gaze. I didn’t want to see the censure in his eyes, the disappointment. “I don’t care what you think,” I told them. “Only magic can free him and you all know it.” Theodore and Quentin looked to Balthazar, but Meg was watching Max with a curious frown. She mouthed “why” at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy prying the tube from my hands. Balthazar settled his hands over the head of his walking stick.

“We may have the gem, but we don’t have the wishes. Brant does, and we’ll never find him in time.” “We might!” I snapped. “And if we do, will you murder him to get them?” “Yes.” He shook his head. “I can’t allow you to do that.” “You were going to murder him to get the wishes.” “I still might, when we catch him. But not you. We won’t catch him in time, anyway.

He fled the city after being recognized. He could be half way to Glancia by now. We have to find another way.” “There is no other way! The royalists have good intentions but without their mercenaries, they have no army. So what do you propose we do, Bal?” “Get him out ourselves, through the proper legal channels.” I scoffed. “We tell them he’s not the man they think he is, that they’ve made a mistake and he’s merely the captain of the Glancian palace guards.” I shook my head at the ceiling. “He was arrested in Yelena’s house. How do we explain his presence there if he’s not her son?” “We say we were attempting to dupe her for money.

We discovered he looked like Dane March and decided to take advantage. That explanation saves them admitting they lied about his recapture and execution along with the other prisoners, and it negates the royalist cause.” I made another scoffing sound. “Don’t be naïve, Bal. That leaves it open for Dane to say that was a lie after his release. They won’t let him live. They can’t let him live. It’s too much of a risk.” “Then what do you propose?” Balthazar spat back. “Storm the holding cells? Poison the guards?” It was the most vehement I’d seen him.

He rarely snapped at others. He preferred sarcasm, not wrath. “Yes,” I said. “Why not?” He sighed heavily. “It didn’t work in Merrin.” “I learned from that failure. This attempt to free Dane will work.” I crossed my arms over my chest against a wave of despair. “It has to,” I added, voice trembling. Meg put her arm around me.

“We’ll find another way. Let’s put our heads together and come up with something.” Max slapped the map tube into the palm of his hand. “I already have an idea.” “Go on,” Theodore said on a hushed breath. “Dane’s in prison, and prison cells are locked.” Quentin snorted. “Stating the obvious ain’t going to help.” “All we need is someone who can open locks without a key.” He headed for the door.

“And I know where to find such folk.” We followed him into the kitchen where Jenny was stirring a stew in a pot over the fire. She looked up as we entered and bade us sit at the table. “You can each have a bowl,” she said. “But no more. There ain’t more to give. It ain’t cheap feeding all of you.” “We can pay you back,” Theodore said. “Balthazar?” Balthazar sat at the table with a groan. “I suspect we’re about to give them every last ell we have.

” “I expect Vance’ll tell you to keep what little you have to help you get away from here. Max can’t stay. There’s a noose with his name on it.” She clutched Max’s arm and gave him a grim smile. “We don’t want to see him swing for murdering them guards.” I slid onto a chair, feeling sick to my stomach. Max accepted a bowl of stew from Jenny. “When’s Vance getting home? We’ve got a business proposition for him.” We had to wait some time before Vance, Drew and Gillon returned with their evening’s takings. Among the coins they dumped on the table were a silver shoe buckle, a shell hair comb, two brass buttons and a silver candlestick.

Jenny handed Vance a bowl of stew and inspected the stolen goods. “Not bad but I don’t see no jewelry. Weren’t you going to break into the Wellerby house tonight?” “Later,” Gillon said as he accepted the bowl from his sister. Jenny flicked her long dark braid over her shoulder. “Don’t leave it too late. We need more than this. Max’s friends are costing us a fortune.” Vance grabbed her wrist. “That’s enough, Jenny. Max’s friends are our friends too.

Got it?” She pulled away, her eyes flashing. “Sure, as long as they don’t cause trouble, but I ain’t putting no wager on that. The leader got arrested.” Vance’s gaze connected with Max’s. “And the Marginer?” “Erik is injured,” Max told him. “He’s recovering with Kitty watching over him. But Jenny’s right. Dane got arrested tonight.” “What for?” Max told him the same story we’d told Jenny, that we were set upon in the street and Dane was arrested for beating up the other man. “That’s self-defense,” Gillon said.

“Ain’t no magistrate will convict him for that.” Drew agreed. “He’ll be free soon, but if I were you, I’d leave Noxford as soon as he’s released.” Vance said nothing. He stroked his chin and watched Max intently. The flickering light from the candles glinted in the gold rings on his fingers and the silver objects on the table. Max studied his empty bowl, unable to meet Vance’s gaze. Vance knew we weren’t telling the truth, and Max hated lying. I decided to make it easier for him. If we were going to ask for their help, they needed to know more anyway.

“Dane was arrested for the same reason Max would be if the authorities knew he was here. He escaped from the prison mine.” “What?” Jenny exploded. “Why didn’t you tell us from the start?” Drew asked. “Aye,” Gillon said darkly. “Why lie?” Vance continued to stroke his chin and glare at Max. Max pushed his bowl away. “We’re not sure how to explain it to you.” “Try,” Drew growled. Jenny pointed her wooden spoon at Max.

“You’re better than this. You been with them too long. Before, you’d never lie to us. Never.” Vance suddenly leaned forward. “So he’s going to hang for murdering the guards. That’s why you all look like miserable dogs.” “He’s not going to hang,” I said. “We’re going to get him out.” The four gang members stared at me as if I’d gone mad before turning to Max.

He nodded. Jenny snorted and returned to the pot over the fire. “You’re all barking. Ain’t no one gets free of the hangman’s noose.” “That’s why we’re going to break him out of the jailhouse before he heads to the scaffold,” Max said. “Tonight,” I added. “But we can’t do it without your help.” Drew, Gillon and Jenny either shook their heads or returned to their bowls of stew, dismissing us. All except Vance. “What you’re proposing is dangerous.

He’ll be heavily guarded. It’s not just getting him out of the prison, but you have to get him out of the city too.” “We know,” Max said. “So will you help us? We can pay you.” “How much?” Jenny asked. “We’ve got twenty-eight ells left,” Theodore said with a glance at Balthazar. “You can have it all.” “Twenty-eight?” Jenny screwed her nose up. “That ain’t much.” Vance nodded at the objects and coins on the table.

“We get that much in two nights.” “It’s all we have,” Balthazar said. “It’s not enough. I can’t risk—”

.

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