Jarrin sat, then paced, then sat again. The time whiled away, but he possessed no way of knowing if it were minutes or days—the candle had long ago sputtered and died, leaving him in darkness. Footsteps clomped occasionally outside the door, each instance making his heart fly into his throat in both excitement at Lupe’s possible return and fear of betrayal.
Eventually, he tried to sleep as instructed, and although he did finally fall into a doze, every little sound startled him half-awake, so he got very little rest.
Sometime later, a knock on the door drove all thoughts of sleep out of his head, and he jumped out of bed. Before he could think on what to do or who it might be, the door opened. Jarrin practically sagged with relief as he recognized Lupe’s lanky form framed by the ambient light flooding into the room.
Lupe quickly stepped inside and closed the door, then fumbled in the dark for several long moments to bring out and ignite a candle. When the light first flooded the room, Jarrin thought the man appeared troubled, but when Lupe turned toward him his face was cheery.
“Today favor is shining upon you, my friend.” He removed a tattered envelope from his vest. “Your papers.”
Jarrin took the envelope eagerly. Inside was his new identity, his new life. He didn’t look at the contents, not quite ready to deal with the fact he would no longer be Jarrin Lestrave.
Lupe reached inside his vest again and pulled out a more officious and less bedraggled envelope.
“This is a letter of introduction to the caravan master for the Rumms family. They’ll be running a little shorthanded on the morrow, so if you’re willing to work your way, you’ll be able to go with them.”
Jarrin stared at the envelope in Lupe’s hand, his heart swelling with relief and gratitude. He took it with a trembling hand.
“It’s more than I could have hoped for. Thank you.”
“I took the liberty of getting you some clothes that fit properly. Those fancy ones underneath should more than pay for them. And I don’t think you’ll be needing them again soon anyway.”
Jarrin’s face colored. He’d never realized his costume showed from beneath the others at all.
“As soon as you get changed, I’ll take you out the back and tell you where you need to go. The caravan master will let you stay in the staging area tonight if you ask. He’s a softy, that one, though he don’t look it.” Lupe handed Jarrin a small sack, and from another pulled cheese and bread.
Jarrin’s stomach growled, his mouth watering, not having eaten anything since the day before. Lupe laughed.
“Guess it was a good thing I picked these up too, eh?” His eyes danced.
Jarrin thanked the Great Crafter for the opportunity he had been given to help Lupe in the past. He’d never expected to have the favor returned or to need it so badly. He quickly changed clothes—it seemed Lupe had a good eye, as they fit rather well. They were nothing fancy, but good garments to travel in.
Lupe removed a bottle of wine from one of the dresser drawers.
“Sorry, no cups. We’ll just have to share.” He uncorked it and wiped the lip with his sleeve before taking a long draught. “Ah, that’s more like it!” He split the bread and cheese between them.
Jarrin wolfed down his share, his hunger roaring. The wine burned on its way down.
Once they were finished, Lupe gathered Jarrin’s former clothes and opened another drawer of the dresser. He pulled out a dark cloak then stuffed Jarrin’s clothes into the drawer in its place. He tossed the cape to Jarrin.
“You’ll be needing this as well. You don’t have that distinctive a look about you, but it’s better not to take any chances.”
He led the way out. Jarrin threw the cloak over his shoulders and pulled up the hood before following. The back way out was through one of the boarding house’s other rooms and involved shimmying down a tree outside one of the windows. Jarrin noted it was late afternoon.
“By the way, poet, I heard an interesting story while I was out and about today.”
Although the day was warm, Jarrin went suddenly cold all over.
“Ayuh.” Lupe leaned back against the trunk of the tree.
He was tempted to run, afraid of what the man had heard or suspected, but Lupe had yet to give him the location of where he needed to go.
“Seems the guard are out in mass looking for a traitor. Nobody’s talking about why this guy is one, exactly, but I happened to overhear a thing or two anyway.”
Despite himself, Jarrin was curious. If he could find out why they had marked him a traitor, perhaps he would have a chance to redeem himself.
“What did he do?”
Lupe lowered his voice. “It seems he deflowered the emperor’s youngest daughter last night.”
Jarrin gasped. He couldn’t help himself. He was being accused of taking the virginity of the emperor’s daughter?
“No! I never…She couldn’t have been…” The woman in pink was Melak’s Avatar’s daughter? How could such a thing be? And if fate could be so cruel, why did she tell them he did such a deed?
Despair flooded him as he recalled the evening. He’d left her his card! He’d given her all the information needed to point the guard straight to him. But how was he to know she was the emperor’s daughter? Or that she would accuse him?
Lupe stared at him, not looking surprised.
“I doubt Duke Crevail take kindly to the news either.”
Jarrin stared at the ground, not believing how things could have gotten so bad. He was doomed, doomed! There was nowhere in the empire he would be safe, not with both the emperor and Crevail thirsting for his blood. But her deflowering wasn’t his fault. He’d done nothing to her!
“It does get worse.”
Jarrin’s head snapped up at that, not able to conceive how this could possibly be.
Lupe didn’t look at him, busily cleaning a fingernail.
“They’re saying the Twelve have been called.”
Jarrin felt a shudder wrack through him. The Twelve were after him? The emperor’s secret guard?
Lupe glanced up. “They’ll track any man they’re set upon until the end of their days, but they can’t cross the empire’s borders. This fellow in trouble would do well to speed to Landianna as fast as he could possibly get there.”
“I…I didn’t know…” Leave the empire? Go to Landianna? Did he have a prayer? Jarrin’s knees felt weak.
“I think I’ll be going on a little sabbatical myself. A change of scenery will do me good. It’s no time to be hanging about, not with all this trouble.”
Jarrin realized he’d dragged Lupe into a lot of danger—too much for only a meager show of kindness.
“I’m…I’m so sorry.” Never did he dream the emperor would call on the Twelve. He was no one! And he’d done nothing! “How can this be happening?” It only seemed to get worse the more he found out.
“They say Melak is not always clear in his plans. And I’m definitely not any happier about this than you are.” Lupe’s eyes were hard. “Take what I gave you and meet the caravan master at the Stag’s Head by the gates. It will all be up to you and the Crafter after that. My debt is paid.”
With that said, he shimmied up the tree and back through the window, never looking back once.
Jarrin gawked after him for several moments, not able to do anything else. The border was three provinces over. It would take weeks to get that far. He stood no chance.
Yet trying would be better than just giving in. Feeling more alone than he had his entire life, he turned and walked out of the alley, his shoulders bowed under an invisible weight.