The group gathered back at the inn when night fell, all sitting in the main room of the inn, laughing and drinking as they ate their dinner. The atmosphere was lively and joyful after another successful market day. Rowena had never known when she’d felt happier. She had spent the day walking around the colourful stalls with Artem, looking at jewellery and watching Artem haggle with the sellers. Artem was being good to her; too good she was beginning to think. He was treating her more like a friend than a captive. She was so used to Narcissa’s harsh methods of keeping both Rowena and Vincent, under her control. Artem was kind, he had included Rowena in his group from the beginning, and now Rowena was thinking that this was deliberate, because now she didn’t want to leave them.
As they finished their meal, a cloaked man approached the table and at the sight of his approach, Artem stood, stretching out his hand to clasp that of the man.
‘Oska! My dear friend, it’s been far too long since I saw you last.’ Artem pulled the man into an embrace before holding him back to examine his face. ‘You haven’t aged a day.’
'You always were a smooth talker Artem, but the years have been much kinder to you than they have to me. You still look like the fresh-faced sixteen year old boy I saw when you were elected King.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment Oska,’ Artem laughed, slapping the man on the back. ‘Come and meet my friends.’ He led the man over to the table. ‘Gentlemen, and lady,’ he said, looking pointedly at me. ‘May I introduce Oska Hilmen, a very old friend of mine and the King of Thieves here in Lyria.’ There was a lot of hasty bowing and mumbling of ‘your majesty’ from the men, but Rowena remained still and silent. She didn’t belong to Artem’s world, as much as she was enjoying being part of the gang, and didn’t think she had the right to associate herself with it.
‘Wonderful to meet you all,’ Oska said, beaming at the people around the table. ‘I recognize a few faces. Jem Debira and Hans Irat. You were members of my court I believe before you went off having your own adventures.’
‘That is true your majesty. But we are very happy to be home on Lyrian soil once more.’
‘Very good,’ the King muttered. ‘And to Erik and Ishak, you are both very welcome. Any friend of Artem’s is a friend of mine.’ They both mumbled thanks, keeping their heads down. Then Rowena felt his eyes turn on her, her spine shuddering as his gaze went right through her. ‘And who is this delightful young lady? Don’t tell me you’ve found a woman that will marry you Arty. We can’t possibly have that.’
‘I can assure you I am still a free man,’ Artem replied. ‘This is Ena, she is from Fersere and will be joining us until we can return her home.’
‘Well, I hope you enjoy your stay here my lady.’ Oska bowed to her before taking a seat next to Jem. After a few moments of stunned silence, the chatter continued and Oska joined in as enthusiastically as the rest of them.
‘So what have we done to be given the pleasure of the presence of another king this evening?’ Rowena whispered in Artem’s ear as she studied the behaviour of Oska. He was very vocal and flamboyant, gesturing wildly with his arms to make a point and speaking louder than was probably necessary.
‘He’s an old friend of mine,’ was Artem’s simple answer.
‘Come on, there must be something more than that.’
‘Well, this is his headquarters, where he runs everything from. Everyone in this room is a supporter of the King. By greeting us like this and sitting to drink with us, he is showing his followers that we are safe and are allowed to be here.’
‘What do you mean ‘allowed’? Surely it’s a free country and we can go wherever we choose.’
‘In the criminal world things are a little more complicated. You can never be sure if you can trust a stranger.’ Rowena shuddered as she realized that Artem was right. Now it had been pointed out to her she could feel the eyes of the rest of the room on her, studying her, waiting to see if Oska would give the signal to say they were no longer welcome.
‘Are we safe? I mean are we going to get attacked if we say the wrong thing?’
‘I don’t think so. Lyria has been pretty quiet for the last few years, at least for as long as I’ve been King. All my trips here have been friendly and we’ve had no trouble. But I’d stay on Oska’s good side just in case.’ He winked at her, indicating that he was joking about the last part, but it still made Rowena feel nervous.
‘I think I’m going to go to bed,’ she said, rising.
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ Artem asked, also rising to his feet.
‘No, it’s fine. I’m just tired and need an early night.’ She nodded to Oska, who nodded back, and walked across the room towards the stairs leading to the room she was sharing with Artem. She got changed slowly, washing herself from a basin of water instead of taking a bath. When she was ready, she slipped into the warm sheets of the small bed. This room had separate beds, which meant she wouldn’t have to fight with Artem about who slept where.
She closed her eyes, but didn’t fall asleep. Instead she listened. To the noises from downstairs coming up through the floorboards, the sound of music and laughter. She so wanted to be as happy as the people downstairs and for a fraction of a second she thought she could be. Everyone at home thought she was dead, she was sure that is what Damia would have told her father, so if she never returned home then no one would notice. But then she remembered the duty she had to her country and how she had to claim her rightful place as heir to the throne. It all felt too much and tears fell down the side of her face.
Stop being so stupid, she told herself. You can’t stay here; you don’t belong with these people. You are completely different and should be at home with your father and stepmother. That’s the way things have to be.
She was still awake when Artem crept into their room several hours later. She kept her back to him pretending to be asleep as he undressed for bed and blew out his candle.
‘Good night Ena. Sweet dreams.’
‘Good night Artem,’ she mouthed back, barely making a sound.