If you’re just jumping in, welcome! You catch up from the beginning of the story here.
Afton’s jaw hung open as Desmond Baines stepped in front of her and Oren. Standing head and shoulders above everyone in Greensborough, Desmond was more wall than man. In the faint light of the lantern he carried, Afton could see the scars across his left cheek and eye that he had earned in a long-ago battle. His was a face that demanded respect, and respect him the twins did, in their own ways.
“I figured you two would come sneaking in this way like a couple of stray cats,” Desmond said in his gravelly drawl, “Lord Quinn’s got the town guard looking all over for you. But we three have played this little game before, and you’re not quite as clever as you think.”
He had spoken to both of them, but Afton was sure that last part had been meant as a jab at her. Before either of them could answer or plead their innocence, Desmond turned on his heel and walked toward the street, signaling them to follow. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot filled the night air, Oren a silent ball of nerves, and Afton working up the courage to speak. Desmond was not only the captain of the guard in Greensborough, but he was also one of their father’s closest advisors.
“Desmond, we can explain,” Afton said, not knowing how they could possibly explain.
Desmond raised a gloved hand to cut her off, not looking behind him or slowing his pace, “Your father thinks you’ve been abducted or killed. I’ve always been glad to intercede for you two with him, but you’ve always had the sense to not be more trouble than you’re worth. You two are getting too reckless. It’s been hours since you were expected back at the manor, and Lord Quinn has already sent men into the woods and out along the roads to look for you.”
Oren groaned from just behind Afton’s shoulder. Afton’s cheeks burned with a mixture of worry and anger. Their father tried to keep a tight leash on them, claiming it was for their protection. Children of nobility were often the targets of nefarious plots, he always said. But the leash felt more like a noose to Afton. She huffed in exasperation, imagining the little independence she enjoyed being stripped away.
Hearing the noises of frustration behind him, Desmond stopped their march just shy of where the small farm road met the main street into town. He eyed them both and said, “I’m doing this as a courtesy. I could have just told Lord Quinn where to expect you and left you to your fates. But I care about you two troublemakers, despite my better judgment. You deserved at least a little warning of the hornets’ nest your absence kicked up. Now let’s go, your late enough as it is.”
He turned without waiting for an answer and led them down the street into town. Afton shared a worried look with Oren. She decided to risk a whisper before following after Desmond, “We were only exploring the forest. Nothing more.”
Oren’s eyes widened as he took in the words she had left unsaid: keep the wizard and his glass bauble a secret.
“Nothing more,” he nodded in a raspy murmur.
Minutes later, the twins stood stiff as boards outside of their father’s study. A plain wooden door was all that stood between them and the punishment of a lifetime. Desmond had slipped inside ahead of them, and Afton could hear a heated exchange muffled through the thick planks of the door. Her mind reeled as she ran through every possible excuse that could ease the coming storm. Looking to her right, Oren’s face was screwed up tightly, and his hand clutched the satchel at his side. If he carried on like that, he’d give their secret away, and then there truly would be no more happy, carefree days for either of them. She took a breath to risk another whisper about the orb, but the door swung open before she had the chance.
“Your children, my lord,” Desmond sighed, gesturing for Afton and Oren to enter the study. With a curt bow to their father, the captain of the guard strode out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Connor Quinn, Lord of Greensborough, their father, sat behind a sturdy table currently covered in maps of the area. Grey streaked through his black hair which he always kept short. The same grey dotted his thick beard, which he always scratched at absently when he was worried, as he was now. His eyes also seemed more grey than blue, which had a chilling effect when he was angry. They chilled Afton to the bone just then as he narrowed his eyes and looked slowly from one of his children to another, then back again.
“Well?” he asked, leaning forward in his unadorned, highbacked chair.
Afton began what little she had been able to rehearse on the way to the manor, “Father, we are deeply sorry. We set out exploring the—”
“No,” he cut in with a flat, final tone, “I want to hear it from Oren first. I’m sure the tale you’ve worked up is quite convincing, but I want to know what Oren has to say.”
As Afton snapped her mouth shut, she could feel herself breathing her frustration out through her nostrils. She looked over at her brother, whose face was as pale as she had ever seen it.
“We, um,” Oren stammered, glancing with panicked eyes at Afton in a plea for help, “Well, as Afton said, we were exploring the forests to the, uh, to the east of town. And I suppose we just, um, lost track of time…”
Connor Quinn leaned back in his chair, arms folding across his chest, and raised an eyebrow, “And what could possibly have been so interesting to keep you out until the middle of the night?”
“Father, we, well, you see… We just decided to, um, to go to the cliffs today, and found…” Oren was breathing quick, shallow breaths now as he attempted to answer. His words trailed off after the word ‘found’ as though he just realized what he had been about to say.
“Turn out your pockets, both of you. And your satchel, Oren,” their father ordered, cutting Oren’s rambling short.
Afton’s stomach sank as she emptied the contents of her pockets, which were sparse: a small, sheathed knife and a few rocks. But she wanted to curse as Oren pulled the strap of his satchel over his head and began pulling its contents out. Why did he always break when Father pushed him? He had mentioned finding something, and now the magical orb was about to topple onto the table in front of them. So long, freedom, she thought ruefully.
But to her surprise, the only thing inside the satchel was Oren’s sling. For a moment, the pit in Afton’s stomach abated until she remembered what was supposed to be in that satchel. And if the wizard’s glass wasn’t in there, where had Oren stashed it?
“A-as I was saying, Father, we found a waterfall we hadn’t seen before and, uh, we wanted to, well, climb it,” Oren continued sheepishly as their father inspected the tools and miscellaneous junk they had deposited on his table.
After a moment, their father sighed and said, “We will discuss this in the morning when we’ve all had time to rest. After you’ve helped Moira in the kitchens, that is. You’ll also be cleaning the stables tomorrow. On top of your daily lessons, that is.”
Oren’s groan echoed Afton’s own. Working in the kitchens tomorrow would mean waking up before dawn. Moira insisted on gathering fresh eggs from local farmers, and that meant striking out from the manor before first light. Regardless of whether their father believed their lie, their punishment would be swift and grueling.
Their father stood up and came around the table to lay a large hand on each of their shoulders and said with a gentler air, “I am so relieved you are safe. We will deal with your actions tomorrow but know that I love you two so deeply. Off to bed and rest. Moira will be around to fetch you in a few short hours.”
He drew them both close in a quick embrace before sending them off to their rooms. Every step felt lighter knowing that their secret had, so far, been kept. Once they were sufficiently far down the hallways, Afton pinned her brother against a stone wall. She gestured to his satchel, but Oren spoke first.
“I dropped the ball in a barrel just before we reached the main road. When you told me to stick to the line about exploring,” he whispered, “We can go back for it tomorrow. Would you rather I have brought it to Father’s study?”
Afton clenched her jaw and she said, “No. Obviously. But now we’re going to have to get up even earlier so we can sneak across town and back before Moira comes looking for us.”
Oren agreed, and they both headed to their rooms. Afton’s sleep was restless that night. She kept thinking of what could happen if someone found the ball and all the trouble they would be in if anyone connected it to them. But as she was drifting to sleep, her last waking thoughts were about the glass sphere itself. Holding it had felt good. Using it had felt better. Every word of warning her father had ever given them about the dangers of magic told her they were better off burying it where no one could find it. And yet, Afton wanted more than anything to possess it again.
The next morning, Afton’s hopes of the magical globe remaining secret shattered.