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The Runaway King: Chapter 41

When Imogen had cared for me at Farthenwood, she was still a servant herself and subject to Conner’s orders. But now we were in Harlowe’s home, and it quickly became apparent that she was in control of every aspect of my care.

She forced food and water into me until I refused to open my mouth, tended to the cuts and scrapes on my chest and back, and stayed with me constantly unless someone else was there to visit. Through all that we said little to each other. I don’t think either of us knew the right words.

For the most part, I let her manage things without complaining. I did tell her later that same afternoon that it was time to return to Drylliad. I asked her to arrange for a messenger who would notify Amarinda and Tobias to find an excuse to leave and meet me in Farthenwood. There we could set everything straight before I returned to the castle.

“Don’t you think they’ll notice the king returning to Drylliad with a broken leg?” she asked, smiling.

“I might not be king anymore,” I replied. Even without Gregor, perhaps the vote on the steward had taken place.

Her response was interrupted by a knock on the door, and Mott was admitted into my room. Imogen again made an excuse to leave and he sat in her chair.

It was difficult to know where to begin with him. I knew he’d be respectful because of my title and the extent of my injuries, but I wanted more than that. I needed to know what it would take for him to consider me a friend again, if anything could. Apparently, he felt awkward too, because he spent more effort studying the floor than actually looking at me.

Finally, I said it. “I won’t apologize for what I’ve done. But I must apologize for how difficult my actions must have been for you.”

“Fair enough.” Then he added, “But for the record, I won’t apologize for my anger about your leaving. I’m glad that everything turned out as it did, but it was still far too reckless.”

“Agreed.” I paused, then said, “Although in the same circumstances, I’d do it again. Except for the part about making Roden angry enough to break my leg.”

We were quiet a moment, and then, in a much sadder voice, Mott added, “Why didn’t you let me come with you? I could have protected you.”

I looked at him. “But that’s just the problem. You would have protected me, which would have risked both our lives. And it had to be me who went. I knew at some point that I’d have to face Roden. He wouldn’t have returned with anyone else.”

“After the way he threatened you, I thought you’d have to kill him.”

“Only if there was no other choice. My hope was always to get him back on my side again.”

“He’s better off here with us.”

“And we’re better off with him,” I said. “He’s a dangerous enemy but a fierce friend. Carthya needs him on our side.”

“But how can you trust him? After all he’s done to you?”

“When we fought that last time, he could’ve easily ended things by striking at my leg. He never did, not once. If he wanted me dead, I would be.”

Mott nodded. “Then I’ll learn to trust him too. You do have friends, Jaron. We will always stand by you.”

I understood that better now. I pointed to his forearm, still bandaged tightly. “I’m sorry about your arm, outside Harlowe’s office.”

“I’d only arrived a little earlier that night. Harlowe was doing his best to deny having seen you, but it was obvious he had.” The corner of Mott’s mouth lifted. “He thought you were a runaway servant, probably owned by a noble in Drylliad.”

For some reason, that struck me as funny. I chuckled only until it hurt, then said, “Harlowe’s a good man. I asked him to be my prime regent.”

Mott’s eyebrows rose. “Prime? That’s going to upset your other regents. Some of them have been there longer than you’ve been alive.”

“They were ready to give control of Carthya to a traitor. Once Gregor’s treachery is known, they’ll be a lot humbler. Harlowe is the right man to lead them.”

“He’ll serve you well.” Mott pressed his lips together and then said, “He couldn’t understand how a king could abandon everything to join up with thieves and pirates. He worried that you had forgotten yourself.”

“I never forgot myself, not once,” I mumbled. “That was the hardest part.” Then I looked up at Mott. “Nor can I ever forgive myself, if you won’t forgive me.”

“For this?” He tilted his head. “There’s nothing to forgive.”

“No, not for what I’ve done.” I lowered my gaze and fingered a loose thread on the blanket. “I ask you to forgive who I am. It will never be easy to serve with me.”

Mott’s eyes moistened. “I am certain of that. But I will serve you anyway.”

With that, I laid my head back on my pillow and rested. When Mott began speaking again, I opened my eyes but only stared forward.

“I should know better than to ever doubt you.” Mott placed a hand on my arm. “Today you live because of everything you’ve done right in your life. You did well.”

I smiled and returned to sleep. There was nothing kinder he could have said.

Imogen was there when I awoke. I must have slept through the night because it was a morning sun warming the room. This time she helped me sit up and placed a tray of food on my lap.

“You look like yourself again,” she said. “Whoever that is.”

I blinked a few times to put her in better focus. “An invalid? That’s the real me?”

“Of course not. But —” Short on words, she only shrugged. “You look . . . content. It suits you.”

I chuckled. “No, it doesn’t.”

“I suppose not.” She grew quiet for a moment, then said, “I shouldn’t have gone to the pirates, even on Amarinda’s orders.”


“We hoped that I could help. The hairpin, the flowers, they were meant to save you.”

“No, Imogen,” I said. “It’s you who saves me. And not just from the pirates. I need you. When we get back to the castle —”

“I’m not going back.” She exhaled slowly, as if hoping to silently express the worst news. “Jaron, please understand. I can’t be there anymore.”

“Why not?” Of course she’d come with me. How else would things return to normal? There was an edge to my tone now. “Is it the servants, or the princess —”

“It’s you. I can’t go back and be near you.” Her brows pressed together and a small line formed between them. “Things are different now. Can’t you feel it?”

In that moment, most of what I felt was frustration. When I’d dismissed her from the castle, I’d known that I had hurt her, but surely she understood my reasons by now. I said, “The night I sent you away, that was only —”

“It was the right thing to do and we both know it. Devlin would have used me to take the kingdom from you.”

I shook my head. “Yes, he tried. But it didn’t work.”

“What if he hadn’t let you fight him? Would you have told him about the cave to keep him from whipping me?”

She had made her point. Whatever my options, I could never have allowed him to harm her. Yet this was no solution. Finally, I mumbled, “You have to come back. It’s only a friendship, Imogen.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “No, Jaron, it’s not. Maybe it never was. Don’t you see that it hurts me to be close to you?”

Hurt — that was the effect I seemed to have on those closest to me. Maybe what I’d done over the past several days had been necessary for Carthya, but there was always a price for my actions. This time, it had cost me the dearest friendship I had.

Imogen brushed at an escaped tear with the tips of her fingers. “Besides, if I go back, I’ll be in the way of you and Amarinda.”

“That’s what’s bothering you? I can make everything work out there.”

She frowned, and even through tears her tone became brusque. “How is that? Will you choose me and humiliate the princess? Destroy the relationship with her country, our only ally?” She shook her head. “The people love her, Jaron, and they should. Choose me, and you would lose your people.”

Choose? I was so taken aback, I could only stammer, “I’m not choosing anyone!”

“You don’t have to. I’m making the choice.” Imogen’s eyes darted away, then she added, “Harlowe offered me a position to stay and watch after Nila, and I’m going to accept it. You must return to Drylliad and learn to trust Amarinda. Learn to need her.”

With a scoff, I turned away. After having come so far, I was back exactly where I had started. Imogen sat and touched my arm. “Jaron, she’s on your side; she always was.”

“She’s friends with a traitor.”

“She’s your friend, which you’d know if you had ever given her the chance to show it. How is it that you can see your enemies so clearly and never your friends?” Imogen closed her eyes, very briefly, to steady her emotions. “You are a king, and she is meant to become your queen. You’ll marry her one day.”

This time, I caught a tremor in her voice and wondered if I’d been mistaken before. Perhaps Imogen hadn’t been saying we were no longer friends. Maybe her message was that we were no longer only friends.

It was impossible to look directly at her as I mumbled, “Imogen, do you love me?”

My heart pounded while I awaited her response. With every endless second that passed, I felt increasingly certain that I never should have attempted such a question. I understood the concept of love but had long doubted anyone’s ability to feel that way for me. All I dared hope to ask of Imogen was friendship, and now it seemed even that was failing.

After a long, horrible silence, she shook her head and whispered, “I don’t belong in your world, Jaron. You have the princess. Win her heart. Be hers.”

I searched Imogen’s face for any sign that she might be hiding her true emotions. After all, I had concealed the truth of my feelings behind the terrible things I’d said to her the night I sent her from the castle. A jumble of emotions collided within me, and I wondered if this was the way I had made Imogen feel that night, as though her entire world was splitting apart. She was masking her pain; I knew her well enough to see that. But for reasons I still couldn’t understand, I was the cause of it.

Yet in the end, the reasons didn’t matter. She was right. Whatever either of us felt, she could never belong to me. My future had but one path, and that was with the betrothed princess.

I nodded silently back at her, and with that, she stood and made herself busy in the room. “You should be ready to leave shortly. Harlowe’s having a bed made up for you in a wagon.”

As if I cared about that. “No more beds,” I grunted. “I’ll go in a carriage.”

“All right. If you’re up to it.”

She wouldn’t even face me now, which was awful. But I suspected it would be far worse to look in her eyes and see nothing but indifference in them.

I tried one last time, hoping to make her understand me. “Wherever our lives lead us, one thing is certain. You and I will always be connected. You might be able to deny that, but I can’t. Even I am not that good a liar.”

Imogen nodded, then turned to me only long enough to lower herself into a deep, respectful curtsy. “Please excuse me . . . Your Highness. We are not likely to ever see each other again. Be happy in your life.” And she left.


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