The room isn’t spacious or ostentatious. Esmeri has had more than enough of such trappings in her fifty-some years. But it is warm, and it is brightly lit.
So when her agents pull the hood off the boy’s head, he squints.
But she can see that his gaze is already roving, taking in details. She gives him a minute, letting him adjust to his current situation, bound and kneeling, with her agents stepping back to give them space and the illusion of privacy.
It is an illusion, though, and at perhaps twelve years of age at the oldest, he knows it.
“We meet at last, Entero,” Esmeri says calmly, not rising from her chair.
And at last, he meets her gaze. “Dowager Queen,” he says quietly, an acknowledgement.
Her eyebrows lift. So he had known who was after him. That goes some way toward explaining why her agents had such trouble apprehending him—not so much because he knew who to avoid, but that he’s sharp enough to have known who they were in the first place.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Esmeri asks.
He stares at her silently.
Esmeri tosses the ledger she’s been reading down on the floor between them, close enough that Entero can see what it is.
By his lack of reaction, she realizes he already knew that, too.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks anyway.
“A job,” Entero answers without appending her title.
But she’s more interested in the hoarseness of his voice. She looks a question at one of her agents, who shakes her head. He refused water, then. No trust, but there’s pride there.
“It’s a record of every transaction the lord made,” Esmeri says. “Every extortion. Every deal he made to cause pain to dozens of people off the streets and get away with it. It’s a record I have used to provide enough evidence for the royal Istal authorities to arrest him, which is the first step toward justice.”
“Do you think there will be?” Entero asks. “Justice.”
Esmeri pauses. That question reveals much.
“There are people who will tell you there’s no such thing as true justice,” Esmeri says. “I won’t tell you anything of the kind. Just that I will pursue it until my last breath, and I plan to have many more. Do you?”
Entero looks at her silently. He knows she has the power to kill him whenever she chooses.
“You stole this record,” Esmeri continues. “You got past the lord’s security. You got past the perimeter my agents had established and got to it first. If you were trying to keep it out of my hands, as you can see, I’ve already acquired it from your boss. What was your agreement with him?”
He cocks his head. “You already know.”
She does. As far as she can determine, his opportunistic underground boss has no emotional hold on him whatsoever beyond payment for services rendered.
That was an oversight on his part. Esmeri won’t make the same mistake.
“I admit I hoped there was more to it,” she says. “Something to make your effort worth enabling the count to continue his grisly work.”
Entero shrugs, but he looks away. He doesn’t like it, then, but he doesn’t dispute his role; he just believes that’s how the world works.
But he doesn’t want to, and he’s still so young.
“Tell me, would you go so far as to kill, all for the sake of a job?” Esmeri asks.
Entero looks back at her then, his empty, steady gaze the answer.
“Ah,” she says. “I see that you have.”
It’s the answer to more than what she asked aloud, too.
“You’re here,” Esmeri says, “because I want you to work for me.”
He doesn’t blink. “Then pay me like anyone else.”
She smiles faintly. “And have you turn around and sell my secrets as just another transaction? No, I don’t think so.”
“I don’t know your secrets,” Entero says.
“I think you should,” Esmeri says softly.
He goes still.
“I think I can trust you with my secrets,” she says, “and I want to. But not without your oath.”
“You wouldn’t trust my oath now,” Entero says, lifting his arms tied behind his back as much the binding allows to demonstrate.
“Then release me first.”
Esmeri shakes her head, smiling. “Would you swear not to attack me first, and could I believe it more than any other oath? No, I think not. I won’t put my people in danger for a boy who doesn’t know what he wants from the world—or rather, won’t admit it.”
Entero’s gaze locks on her, and it’s like his entire being has focused with it.
Because this is a boy who, despite seeing the worst of the world, wants to believe it can be better, and more, that he can be better. This is a boy who knows exactly what he is, what he’s made himself become, but wants to be someone who deserves trust—maybe not hers specifically, but he’ll take it.
Because this is a boy who’s hidden himself in shadows and silence but wants to be seen—to be wanted, and valued, and she can give him that.
“You broke the law,” Esmeri says, “countless times, which I can prove if I need to. But as I am not under any duress and have nothing to lose, I give you my word that I will clear your record if you work for me exclusively for one full year. You may consider this your opportunity to balance the scales of justice for what you’ve done before.”
Entero’s gaze searches her. “And?”
On the receiving end of a pointed glare from one of her agents, Esmeri adds first, “And I will provide for your needs during that time.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She knows, and she rises, crossing to him as she speaks. “At the end of the year, if you want to leave, you may. But if you wish to join me, you will give me your oath then. No coercion; no blood oaths. Nothing but your word.”
Esmeri carefully crouches before him at eye level, close enough that he could bash her head with his skull before her agents could intervene if he wanted to.
“But understand,” she says, “I will only offer you entrance into my service once.”
Entero considers, but not for long before nodding.
I have him.
She cocks her head to one side, because words have power.
“Your Highness,” he says.
When her agents have shown Entero out of the room—no blindfold, this time, so if he didn’t already know he was in her private rooms in the palace he will shortly—her ranking bodyguard remains behind.
“Was that wise?” the woman asks. “He can learn a lot in a year, even if we’re careful.”
“Don’t be careful,” Esmeri says sharply, picking up the ledger as she drags herself back to the chair gratefully. At her age, gracefully dramatic crouches are hard on the knees. “Don’t lie to him, because he’ll know. Don’t hide anything from him, and he will choose to stay.”
Her bodyguard frowns.
“That boy,” Esmeri says, “is already amazing. Imagine what he’ll be like when he feels free to grant us full access to his talent and drive, because he chose us.”
Her bodyguard doesn’t question her assumption that he will; she’s been with the dowager queen long enough to know what Esmeri’s powers of assessment are like.
“Once he’s settled, gather every record of his criminal activity,” the dowager queen says absently as she accepts a different report, the question of Entero settled. “I want it all gone by the end of the week.”
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