There was more tension in the air than normal over the next few days. Rowena was scared to walk with Artem for fear of what she might allow herself to do or say, and Artem didn’t speak to Rowena because he was still embarrassed by being rejected in that abrupt manner. Ishak noticed the separation of the usually inseparable pair. He couldn’t get anything from Artem; so on the day they reached the Madrimian boarder, he began his interrogation of Rowena.
She was walking alone in the centre of the group, so Ishak pulled up level with her, matching his step with hers.
‘So tell me what’s wrong with Artem this time.’
‘Who says there is something wrong with Artem? Has he spoken to you?’ Rowena asked defensively, nervous about being asked about why they were behaving strangely.
‘No one has said anything to me. But they don’t need to. I’ve known Artem for years, I know what he’s thinking at the same time he does, I know when he’s sad or angry or happy. I can tell that something is wrong, but it’s not any of the normal reasons and he won’t tell me what it is.’
‘So what do I have to do with it? Artem wouldn’t talk to me if he was having trouble.’
‘It’s not that. It’s because you two always walk together on these journeys, and now suddenly you have been avoiding each other. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that something has happened between you. And as both Artem’s friend and yours I demand to know what is going on.’
‘It’s a long story.’ Rowena said, trying to avoid the subject.
‘We’ve still got a good few hours before we have to stop for a break.’
Unable to think of a reason she should keep quiet, Rowena gave in. ‘So you know I told you about that fight I had with Artem the night before we had to leave. When he came down the next morning and asked to speak with me alone, he was apologizing for the things he’d said.’
‘So what’s the problem? Surely now you two have sorted that out there shouldn’t be this awkwardness.’
‘That’s not the end of the story. In order to say sorry properly he gave me a locket.’ She pulled the chain out from under the neckline of her dress. ‘That’s what prompted the fight between Artem and Oska. Oska said it was stolen but Artem insisted it wasn’t.’
‘And was it? Stolen I mean?’
‘No it wasn’t. Artem told me afterwards it had been his mother’s.’
‘And why didn’t he tell Oska that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Rowena shrugged. ‘He thought it was a private matter? Anyway, later, when he told me the truth about the necklace, he tried to kiss me.’
‘I couldn’t let him. It would have been wrong.’
‘You don’t feel the same way about Artem as he does about you?’ Ishak’s face was uncharacteristically soft as he looked at Ena, his eyes searching her face for any clues to tell him what was going on inside her head.
‘I don’t know,’ Rowena said, looking over her shoulder to look at Artem, silent and sad looking. ‘I suppose I do. He makes me feel special and loved in a way I’ve never felt before.’
‘Then why don’t you tell him that? He obviously cares for you or he wouldn’t have given you something that meant so much to him.’
‘But I don’t want to hurt him,’ she looked away, back to the road ahead. ‘Because nothing can happen. He’s the King of Thieves from Madrimar and I’m a princess from Fersere. The two just don’t mix.’
‘You’re what?’ There was a deathly silence as Rowena realized what she’d just said. Her hand went to her mouth as if she would be able to take the words back that way. But she’d said it and there was no way to cover it up. She looked around to see who was close. Lukas was alone as usual and leading out in front, Jem was telling a story to Erik, his face contorting into all sorts of weird expressions, and Hans was talking animatedly about something with Artem. None of them seemed to have heard what she had said
‘Please don’t tell anyone, not even Artem.’
‘Why shouldn’t I? Do you have any idea how much danger you have put us in? Travelling with the Crown Princess of Fersere, a woman who is supposed to be dead, could mean the death penalty for all of us.’
‘No, that’s not possible.’
‘Yes it is. They will need someone to blame for your disappearance and who better than the criminals who returned you.’
'I wouldn’t let that happen.’
‘How can I trust you when you’ve lied to me, to us all, since we met you?’ He hissed, venom seeping into his voice.
‘I only lied because I was scared. How would you feel? I’d been locked away for years, not allowed any contact with the outside world with anyone other than my father, and that was only because I found someone kind enough to sneak a letter out for me. I had no idea who I could trust. To start with I thought you were men sent by Narcissa to take me back, that was why I ran. Don’t you see? What else could I have done?’
‘Anything other than lied to us. What about when you discovered we weren’t who you thought we were? You could have said something then.’
‘By then it was too late. If I’d told you then you wouldn’t have trusted me. You have to understand why I did it.’
‘I understand why you did it at first,’ Ishak said, his voice flat and emotionless. ‘But things are different now. Artem has to know before he makes a decision he’ll regret for the rest of his life. You have to tell him.’
‘B-but I can’t.’ Even now Rowena could see the look of disappointment and betrayal in Artem’s eyes as she told him the truth. ‘I’ll lose him.’
‘That’s not my concern,’ Ishak said without looking at her. ‘My main priority is to keep Artem alive, it always has been and it always will be, and if he takes you home, then I can’t guarantee that he will leave Fersere alive.’
‘I’ll run away,’ Rowena suggested desperately. ‘As soon as we get to Peria I’ll disappear in the middle of the night and Artem will never have to know I lied.’
'It’s not that simple. I’ve never seen him so infatuated with one person before and my instincts are telling me that if you ran, he would run after you. The only way to ensure he stays away is to tell him the truth. And if you won’t do it, then I will.’
‘We’re here!’ The cry from the front of the group drew Rowena’s attention away from Ishak and towards the people up ahead. ‘I can see the sign for the border. Artem you’re nearly home.’ There was a great deal of cheering and whistling from the male members of the group, particularly Artem, who seemed so happy to be back on home soil.
And as Rowena watched Artem’s face light up with joy, she knew she had to tell him the truth. It would break her heart, and maybe his too, but she couldn’t stand lying to him, giving him false hope that she could be able to leave everything for him. She had a country that needed her and she couldn’t walk away from that.
‘I’ll tell him,’ she whispered to Ishak.
‘Soon, I promise.’