The last traces of twilight had fled the cliffs as Stephanie reached the hostel. Honeyed curtains dotted with constellations hid the lobby from the view of passersby, and the sign above the door announced the building as Ansfrid's Hostel. Before the South fortress was renovated into a castle, this was the residence for diplomats from several of the mainland and coastal cities, but now it almost solely attracted students.
Stephanie stepped into the furnace-warmth of the lobby, letting the heavy imported-oak door swing shut behind her. The clerk from the afternoon had left, and now a cohort of scholars filled the tables and benches, talking in low voices. Stephanie had arrived with them for the end of the winter festivities, and had used the cover to secure Justin's freedom.
"Steph! Glad you're back!" Horatio, one of the few who knew her for more than the few months they had been traveling, stood up and clasped her hands. She could see the unspoken question in his eyes and nodded.
"Yes, I'm glad everything was taken care of. I'll be leaving tonight to go back and see my parents."
"So you are leaving tonight," one of the other scholars, Gregory, spoke up. "Does that mean you got the job?"
"Well, no, this is more due to family matters. But Dr. Hailey will be there," Stephanie could tell Gregory and some of the other scholars were envious, but less so than if she had actually been invited by Dr. Hailey. He was the leading botanist in the southern hemisphere, and a job with him meant traveling all over the world.
"Good luck anyway," Gregory said, turning back to his friends. Stephanie winked at Horatio and then quickly headed to the staircase.
"Oh, I almost forgot--" Horatio shouted up at her. "--Leon was here, asking for you!" She paused on the steps, letting him know she got his message, and then slowly continued, suddenly sapped of energy. Instead of going straight to her room, she headed for the narrow passage at the end of the hall that led to the attic.
Upstairs the large room was lit by gas lanterns and a single electric light that hung from the center of the ceiling. There was no fireplace up here, so the draft was always cold in the winter, and unbearably hot in the summer. An expensive rug covered the floor, and a cloth divider separated the stairs from the rest of the room. Stephanie walked straight through the opening and found Leon at the hastily thrown-up table that served as the center of a war council eighty years ago. He was facing away from her, but turned as she walked in the room.
"Ani," he said, standing up to greet her. "I was just waiting for Zachary's contact." The mess from the previous week of anxiety and planning had been cleaned and packaged away, but there was still a heavy sense of unfinished business in the air.
"Leon, I thought this was it. I thought I was going back home now." Stephanie warned him, yearning to go home and be done with this mess of magic and politics.
"I know, but we're going to need someone to watch Dorian, and Zach is completely estranged from the court now. The general populace has most forgotten him, thanks to his introversion, and he's of no use watching from his houseboat."
"You seem to forget that the ship stunt today was supposed to be the last time I helped you." Stephanie was boiling inside, not just because Leon wanted her to stay but because she knew this plan wouldn't work. She knew there was no way they could take back the island while Justin was still Sirrah Bear. The elder mages had all but lost their magic, and there was nothing left on this island that could still help Justin. "Please leave me out of your plans in the future, cousin."
Leon backed down. Stephanie was about to leave the room, but he suddenly seemed to regain his composure. "Listen, Ani, you should know something." He paused to make sure she was listening. "The people aren't enamored by Dorian, but you already know that. They believe Justin is dead, for the most part, and the next logical heir, Zachary, was never trained for this."
"And you are telling me this because...?" Stephanie crossed her arms defensively.
"They remembered you! Horatio was the first to tell me, but even the palace librarian referred to you by 'Adeline'. You're still a princess to them, even if you don't have royal blood. And here, royal blood doesn't even matter: you've seen the charter."
"So you want to set me up as the next heir? Am I supposed to overthrow Dorian single-handedly and carry your vision when you can't even ensure Justin's safety?" Leon threw his hands in the air as if to deflect Stephanie's arguments.
"Don't you understand what both you and Justin are doing? At least I'm trying to help someone other than myself!" Someone started banging loudly up the stairs, and for a moment both Leon and Stephanie froze. They didn't ease up until they heard a door slam, and by then they had both calmed a little.
"Ani, you're shirking your responsibility." Leon immediately picked up where he left off.
"Since when was this my responsibility?" Stephanie responded quietly, the fire in her eyes almost dissolved.
"It's a wonder people still care for this island. Even its chosen champions want nothing to do with it anymore." Leon was calm now that he had finally finished.
Stephanie sat down at the table, running her fingers over the knots and scratches the cured wood still maintained. It seemed like such a sham that one of the greatest battles this island had ever fought was planned over such weak, unpleasant wood. It brought her no sense of pride to know it was made out of the pines that grew on this island. It only reminded her of the reason Dorian was here: cheap clipper ships that would bring information up and down the coast of the mainland to Adelen, where a new trade of spies and even weapons would make him richer than the nations fighting.
"You know, Brent warned me about staying away from you today." Stephanie eased into a different conversation, aware that Leon was waiting for an answer.
"The clerk? Of course he did. He's wanted you out of this since the first day." Leon laughed along with Stephanie, and for a moment they were cousins again, talking late-night gossip about the mainland customs and both wishing they were back on Adelen.
"Why don't you try to be king? I'm sure you'd be much better than I or Justin at it." Leon looked down at the few sheets of paper still left on the table, his adam's apple moving as he swallowed his fear.
"I couldn't. There's no way, not with the way I've been running this venture, and certainly not with the friends I've made on the mainland." Stephanie recalled the first time she met Leon's betrothed, the sister of the current Queen of Centiane. "It would look like a power grab, coming from me."
"Yes, and I wouldn't be making a power grab in your name." Stephanie countered, finally reconciling herself to the idea of staying longer.
Leon laughed, shrugging his shoulders as if to say he had nothing to do with it. For a while they talked about useless things, but soon it was midnight, and Leon still had to lay out his plan and get Stephanie on the next incoming ship. She was no longer going to be under the cover of a biology student, but now she would enter as Marchesa Stephanie D'Jonc, daughter of Princess Theophania.
Justin awoke while it was still dark, aware of a slight tingling in the back of his mind. It was the same tingling he felt before he was struck by lightning, except there was no storm. Only an ever-present calling, like the feeling a deer path would give him when he went on hunts with his father. There was something at the end of that path, looking back at him with soft eyes and calling him away from the yipping hounds and snorting, stamping horses. Quietly he got up and slid down the side of the boat, making as little splash as possible. He couldn't leave Adelen yet. That special memory he caught a glimpse of earlier was at the forefront of his mind, and he vividly remembered the dusty, cellar walls and the rows upon rows of wine bottles stacked neatly followed by the barrels; and behind one of those barrels was a small dirt tunnel that he crawled hands and knees behind Stephanie to escape. And then, just when they finally crawled out into the mouth of a cave below the harbour, he told her to leave him there. It had been three long hours before she finally broke and told his parents where he ran away to, but it had been enough to see them: silvery-shinning water nymphs with fish tails for legs, and the longest kelp hair he had ever seen.