“James! You found us!” I gave Lux an I told you so look. “It’s about damn time. We’ve been looking for you since—”
Lux’s voice shattered my relief, and I let go of James and glanced around. He was alone. My stomach dropped. “James?”
He pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry. Henry tracked us down and—”
“Henry? You mean Hades?” Lux paled, and for a moment he looked so utterly shocked that despite his immortality, I was afraid his heart would stop. That he would will his life to end.
But James couldn’t possibly be right. Henry would never do that—no mattly 8212;noer what stories they told, he was different now. He was wiser, more compassionate, and he knew how much the two brothers loved each other. He had to understand.
“Did he say where he was taking him?” I said to James, touching Lux’s elbow. He shuddered, but at least he didn’t jerk away.
“He took him to the Underworld,” said James. “Lux, I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t.” The very forest seemed to tremble at the danger in his voice. If Lux could’ve killed us all, I was absolutely sure he would. “This is your bloody fault. After everything you did—”
“Actually, my dear son, this is your fault.”
If Lux had been angry before, it was nothing compared to the fury that twisted his expression now, making him nearly unrecognizable. Walter stepped out from between the trees, Ella trailing after him. She slung her bow over her shoulder and smirked, looking so self-satisfied that the urge to wipe that look off her face overwhelmed me. Apparently Lux was rubbing off on me.
Walter, however, looked anything but satisfied. His mouth was set in a thin line, and his forehead furrowed so deeply that his bushy brows nearly obscured his eyes. “You should have never taken your brother from the Underworld to begin with.”
“You didn’t give me any choice.” Lux choked up, and he balled his fists so tightly that his knuckles turned white. “You took him from me—you knew what you were doing to us, and you took him anyway.”
“Perhaps, in time, we could have found a compromise,” said Walter. “As it stands now, I cannot reward insubordination. We will find your brother, and when we do, the terms of our deal will be abolished. You will no longer share your immortality with him, and you will remain where I can watch over you until you are ready to assume the duties you abandoned.”
Heavy silence settled over us, and Lux stiffened. I may not have had a twin brother, but I knew what it was like to lose the only person in the world I loved, and the thought of Lux going through that made me sick to my stomach.
I opened my mouth to say something, but before I could, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the wind grew still. One moment Lux was facing Walter, and the next he was sprinting through the space between them, his fist raised and aimed directly for his father’s face.
Walter’s fingers twitched, and before he could reach him, Lux flew sideways and smashed against a tree. The impact splintered the trunk and sent it crashing into the forest, but Lux pulled himself to his feet, his chest heaving.
“You know better than that,” said Walter. “Do not make this any more difficult than it has to be, son.”
“I am not your son,” snarled Lux.
Walter sighed. “Sometimes I wish that were true. It would be easier on us all.”
Thick ropes appeared out of nowhere, and they wrapped around Lux, forcing him against another tree. He struggled as they coiled around the trunk and his body several times, but they glowed with golden light that not even Lux could break. He growled, clawing at the bark with his bare hands, but neither the ropes nor the ty ses nor ree budged.
Walter admired his handiwork. “Much better. Ella, you and the pack will keep Pollux and the others subdued while I find Castor. Do not let him escape.”
“Of course, Father,” said Ella, and she settled across from Lux, her bow in hand and ready to use. “One wrong move, and I’ll put as many arrows through you as it takes.”
“You can’t kill me,” said Lux.
“But I can pin you down.”
“None of that, children,” said Walter. “I will return, and when I do, I expect everyone to still be intact.”
He began to walk away, and Ava gave me an apologetic look as she hurried after him. No chance of her lifting the curse now, not with her father so upset. Lux’s eyes watered, and the thought of seeing him cry after all of this stabbed at something inside of me. He was going to lose everything he cared about. The only person in the world he loved—and all because Casey was kind enough to let James and me stay the night.
I couldn’t let that happen.
“Wait,” I called, hurrying after Walter and Ava. “Please, you can’t—”
“Do not presume to tell me what I can and cannot do,” said Walter without pausing. “Lux knew the risk he was taking. It is out of my hands now.”
“Out of your—are you really that much of a heartless bastard?” I said. At last Walter stopped and faced me, but before he could say a word, I went on. “You know how badly this is going to hurt Lux. You know it’s going to destroy him. You know you’re taking away everything he lives for. But you don’t even care, do you? You don’t even care that you’re going to gut your own son.”
Walter narrowed his eyes. “Do not dare to speak to me like—”
“Like what? Like you’re an asshole? Because you are.”
Silence. Walter’s face grew stony, while Ava’s drained of all color. Beside me, leaves crunched, and James reached for me. “Kate—”
“Don’t Kate me.” I ripped my hand from his. “All of you—you’re just going to sit by and let this happen because you’re too proud to admit that maybe you were wrong? This is worse than murder. At least there’s an afterlife there. This is mentally and emotionally destroying someone for eternity. You claim to be the good guys, and yet you do something like this over a millennia-old grudge?”
“I never claimed we were the good guys,” said Walter evenly. “Any assumption on your part is yours alone. We do what we must to uphold our laws—”
“Laws can be changed. Laws that dictate hurting someone like this should be changed.”
“That is not for you to decide.” He stared down at me, his blue eyes never wavering from mine. “I understand why you feel so passionately about this, after what you went through with your mother. But it is not the same. Pollux and Castor broke our laws knowing what the consequences would be when this day inevitably came. They eig came. have escaped conviction for thousands of years, and now they must face the consequences.”
“Why? Because you decided it?”
“Yes,” he said. “Because I and the council have ruled it so, and our word is law. If you are to be one of us, Kate, you must accept this sooner rather than later. Your stubbornness got you this far, and your compassion is admirable, but now it is necessary that you acknowledge you are not always right in these matters.”
“Yeah, well, neither are you. You might rule above the surface, but when summer’s over, I’m going to be Queen of the Underworld. And if you think I’m going to let this stand, then you’re in for a rude surprise.”
His eyes glinted. “Is that so? Perhaps you ought to inform Henry of this decision before you hijack his realm and overturn thousands upon thousands of years of his rule.”
“He’ll agree with me,” I snapped, even as doubt wavered inside of me. But if he didn’t—if Henry disagreed and forced Casey and Lux to remain apart—then he’d be in for the fight of his life. Not how I wanted to start our marriage, but I couldn’t walk away from the twins. Not when it would destroy them both so completely.
Walter took a deep breath. “Someday you will understand. Whether or not today is that day, I cannot remain here to argue with you when there will be no compromise. My decision stands, as does Henry’s. Come, Ava.”
He took her hand, and before I could say another word, they disappeared. My heart pounded, and the forest spun around me in a blur of greens and browns, but there was nothing more to say. No matter what title I’d have in six months, without Henry to back me up, I was as powerless as Lux. The only difference between us now was that I’d gotten lucky. I still had my mother.
But he would be alone for eternity, and nothing in the world could convince Walter he’d made the wrong decision. For the first time since I’d met Henry on the banks of the river, I wondered if maybe I had, too.
It didn’t take Henry long to find his brother. He may not have had James’s talent, but Walter was painfully predictable at the best of times. After an eternity together, Henry knew where to look.
“Do you truly believe this is the best place to search for Castor?” said Henry as he stepped inside the ancient cottage. The odor of rotting rabbit meat saturated the air, and he flared his nostrils.
Walter stood in the middle of the small room, alone now. “It is as good a start as any. Ella has scoured the area and found no sign of him, but he cannot have gone far on his own.”
“He was with James for a time,” said Henry.
“Which means he is very cleverly hidden.” Walter focused on him with a stare that seemed to permeate through the protective layers Henry had developed over countless lifetimes. “Do you know where he is?”
“I do not.” The lie slid off his tongue with such ease that he nearly felt ashamed of himself. But some lies were justifietexed. “I am not certain we should search for him any longer.”
“Oh? And why is that?” said Walter, but judging by the tone of his voice, it was obvious he knew why Henry’s opinion had changed.
He shrugged. “Perhaps they have suffered enough. There is no need to turn a difficult situation into an eternal one.”
The corner of Walter’s lips turned upward, but there was no humor behind it. “I thought I sensed you there. Your wife is quite the handful.”
Henry didn’t return his smile. He hadn’t meant to spy on Kate, but it had hardly been his fault that his brother had run across her while Henry had been tracking him. “She may be right, you know. I am willing to entertain the notion that after searching for such a long time, we have lost all perspective in the matter.”
Walter shrugged. “Perhaps, but it is not her place to say so.”
“If she does not, who will?”
His eyebrows shot up. “Do not tell me you are allowing her to make you soft.”
“Soft has nothing to do with it. We have sworn to protect humanity.”
“My son is not mortal.”
“No,” said Henry with patience he hadn’t thought he possessed. “But his brother is, and we will be causing him more pain than he deserves.”
“So you are saying I ought to allow Pollux to go free simply because he is not the only one who will suffer, despite the crime also being Castor’s?”
“That is exactly what I am saying.”
Silence. Walter’s nose twitched, and satisfaction burrowed deep within Henry. His brother had been counting on his allegiance, but this was the one time he would not have it. Not when Henry was now certain it would destroy his relationship with Kate. His desire to reclaim Castor as a citizen of the Underworld was built on nothing but pride and laws he himself had created; the same which had ruined his marriage to Persephone and put him through the pain of separation that the twins were now experiencing. He knew that ache all too well, and it was cruel to purposely put another being through it.
Though it wounded an elemental part of him to break the laws of the Underworld and allow Castor to go free, at least this would be his choice. And when he had to choose between making an exception and losing the only person who had made him happy in the past thousand years, there was no question.
“I do not understand why you have changed your mind so suddenly,” said Walter, and even Henry could hear the effort it took for his brother to keep himself under control. But though Walter would never admit defeat, he must have known he was outnumbered, and after the loss the council had experienced that winter, they couldn’t afford any more dissidence.
“You may not value your marriage, brother, but I value mine.” Henry fixed him with a steely gaze. “I respect and honor my queen’s opinion. You and I both know we cannot begrudge her when she is still too green to know why we make the decisions we do.”
Walter stared back. “The more she learns, the whalearns,more responsible she will be for her actions. We cannot excuse her on the grounds of immaturity forever.”
“No, we cannot,” said Henry. “But no one can argue that Kate brings a fresh perspective at a time when we are in desperate need of one.”
“I am afraid, brother, that you are not the only person basking in her lack of wisdom.”
Henry swallowed. His brother could not have possibly found anything more painful to imply. “What she does with James during her six months away is her decision.”
“And what you do now is yours.”
“Yes,” he said quietly, “it is. If you will excuse me.”
He waited until he’d exited the cottage before once again closing his eyes. When he opened them, he stood twenty feet from Kate and the others, well concealed by the brush around him. He sent out a probing thought, not expecting an answer in return. James?
If you want to help Pollux, you will not ignore me.