Rowena was dragged out of Ani’s safe house and into the streets. Ani clearly knew where she was going, walking incredibly fast down back alleys until a dingy-looking in tavern appeared in front of them.
‘This is it.’
The door leading into the tavern where Artem held his headquarters suddenly seemed very imposing to Rowena.
‘What do I say to them?’ She asked Ani as they walked up to the door. ‘I don’t know how to deal with these sorts of people. I’ve been locked away from the rest of the world for most of my life, and part of that I do mean literally.’
‘Think of it as training to be a Queen. The monarch knows about their King of Thieves, they have to talk regularly about what’s been going on in the underworld. This will be good practice for you.’
‘How come you know so much about criminal politics?’
‘My dad used to be the King of Thieves, many years ago when I was about six or seven. You get to know how things work around here pretty quickly.’ She pushed open the door and strode confidently inside, Rowena scampering in behind her.
On the inside it looked just the same as the inn at Amea, but this time there was a table clearly marked out as where the King sat. There was a large high-backed armchair in front of the massive stone fireplace, which stood at the head of the sturdy wooden table. At the moment this seat was empty, but there were other people sitting around it, deep in discussion.
But Ani didn’t hesitate to walk over to the table and tap on the shoulder of one man sitting close to the head of the table. He was dark-skinned which made his white teeth stand out even more in the semi-darkness of the room. His eyes were almost black and the whites of his eyes stood out as much as his teeth. His face was serious as Ani whispered something in his ear. He nodded and Ani motioned for Rowena to approach the table.
She walked over cautiously, aware that the table had fallen silent and every pair of eyes was watching her as she walked down the table towards the head. When she stopped next to Ani by the man’s chair she had no idea what to do, what to say.
‘My name is Bledri, aide to his Royal Highness King Artem. Ani here tells me you have some information we should know about him.’ He looked at her, waiting for her story. ‘Don’t be nervous. Your name is Ena right?’ Rowena nodded, thankful that Ani hadn’t given him her formal title. ‘Alright then Ena. Take your time.’ Rowena felt Ani’s bony hand slip into hers, squeezing it to show she was there, supporting her.
‘Well, I was travelling with Artem; I mean his majesty, and a small group of other men a few days ago. They met me,’ she paused, trying to do the math in her head, ‘just under two weeks ago I think, the days seemed to blur into each other.’
‘That’s OK,’ he said reassuringly. ‘Carry on.’
‘Well, we met in the Wild Lands, I was hopelessly lost and trying to make my way to Peria so I could go home. I don’t know the south very well you see. Anyway we were heading north towards Peria when I was nearly assaulted by a member of Artem’s group.’
‘Who was it?’
‘Erik Leon, sir. He said there was a man in Artem’s court, a man he supported, who wanted to take the throne from Artem.’
‘Why not wait until the next election? It’s only just over a year away?’
‘He was scared, this friend of Erik’s. He was worried that Artem had too much support and would be re-elected and he wouldn’t get a chance to become king.’
‘So if you are here then where is his majesty?’
‘Artem is dead sir.’ Rowena forced the words out and listened to the deathly silence that filled the room as every head turned to see who had uttered those words.
‘That is not possible,’ Bledri breathed.
‘I’m afraid it is sir. I was there when it happened. Artem had been angry at Erik for trying to attack me and had gone after him to teach him a lesson but Erik had already disappeared. I made him stop. I didn’t want there to be a fight over me, I’m not important. But then the next day when we stopped at noon,’ her voice faltered as images of Jem’s dead body flashed back into her memory. ‘When we stopped the remaining group was attacked.’
‘By whom? Not Erik?’ Bledri’s eyes were wide with disbelief.
‘I’m afraid so my lord. He had more men with him, none of whom I knew, and he killed them all.’
‘Can you tell me who was with Artem, the men who were killed?’
‘Of course,’ Rowena said, holding back tears. ‘There was Jem Debira, Lukas Repira, Hans Irat and Ishak Nayar.’
‘Ishak? Not him too?’ Bledri’s head sank into his hands and there was a sudden surge of whispering around the silent room.
‘I’m afraid so sir. I saw Erik cut him down before my very eyes.’ A tear escaped and ran down the side of her cheek. ‘And I’m sorry to say that I ran. I saw Jem, Lukas and Ishak cut down and Artem yelled at me to run. There were three men attacking Hans and Artem including Erik and I didn’t know what to do. I can’t fight sir, I would have been no use to them, only a hindrance, and so I ran. Artem said he was right behind me but when I eventually stopped running he wasn’t there.’ She was sobbing again now, the pain of losing Artem feeling like a fresh wound, pain searing through her heart.
‘Don’t cry my dear,’ Bledri said, handing her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’
‘Why are we trusting her?’ A voice from the other end of the table rang out in the silent room. ‘Who is she to tell us that Erik killed Artem. How do we know she didn’t kill them both and is using their deaths to benefit herself in some way.’
‘And how do you think she would do that?’ Ani said, suddenly showing a stronger side to her personality Rowena hadn’t seen before. ‘She has nothing to gain from Artem’s death, only pain and loss. Does this look like a woman conspiring to bring down a monarchy that has existed underground for hundreds of years? I don’t think so.’ She put her arm around Rowena and asked permission for them to leave. Bledri nodded and they began to move towards the door.
‘So you’re going to let the little murderess walk away?’ He shouted, whether at Rowena or at Bledri, no one could tell. ‘My father is lying dead in some forest somewhere and you are going to let the culprit go?’ Rowena stopped and looked at the young man. He was starting to look familiar, but she couldn’t place his face.
‘Who was your father?’
‘I’m Karthik, Ishak’s son.’