"Your father once told me that a dog sitting on a throne is still a dog, while a king in a crumbling rocking chair is still a king."
Nice choice of words, considering his official title was preceptor of the Iron Dogs. "My father?"
Hugh sighed. "Come on. I saw the sword, I walked through what remained after Erra's destruction, and I found your flowers where you and the shapeshifters fought the Fomorians a year ago. I felt the magic coming off them. Don't insult my intelligence."
It was like that, then. "Fine. What do you want?"
Hugh spread his arms. "What do you want, that's the question. You came here, to my castle."
"That insulting-intelligence remark goes both ways. You set a trap, lured me across the ocean into it, and now I'm here. If you wanted small talk, we could've done that in Atlanta."
Hugh smiled. Your teeth are too perfect, Hugh. I can totally help you with that.
I pretended to study the Golden Fleece. These were just opening feints. Soon he would get serious and go in for the kill, one way or the other. The fleece looked in too great a shape to be centuries old.
"Did you really kill a ram with gold wool?"
"Gods, no. It's synthetic," he said.
"We took a ram pelt, coated it in magic to keep it from burning, and dipped it in gold. The real trick was getting the proportion of gold and silver right. I wanted to keep the flexibility of gold, but it's so heavy the individual hairs kept breaking, and too much silver made it stiff. In the end we went with a gold-copper alloy."
"Why go through all this trouble?"
"Because kingdoms are built on legends," Hugh said. "When the hunters are old and gray, they will still talk about how they went to Colchis and hunted for the Golden Fleece."
"So you want your own kingdom?" Aiming high.
He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Perhaps."
"Is my father aware of your plans? History says he doesn't like to share."
"I have no taste for the purple cloak," Hugh said. "Only for the laurel wreath."
The Roman emperors had assumed the purple cloak as the sign of their office, while victorious Roman generals would ride through Rome in triumph with laurel wreaths held over their heads. Hugh didn't want to be the emperor. He wanted to be the emperor's general.
"What are your plans, Kate? What is it you want?"
"To be left alone." For now.
"You and I both know that won't happen."
I touched the Golden Fleece. The tiny metal hairs felt soft under my fingers.
"I killed Voron," Hugh said quietly.
Cold washed over me. My mind served up a memory: the man I called my father in a bed, his stomach ripped open. A phantom odor, putrid, thick, and bitter, filled my nostrils. It had haunted me through the years in my sleep.
The man sitting on the throne was no longer relaxed. The arrogance and the good-natured mirth had vanished. A somber remorse remained, mixed with a resignation born from old grief.
"Do you want a medal?"
"I didn't plan to do it," Hugh said. "I expected it would eventually come to that since Roland wanted him dead, but that day I didn't come to fight. I wanted to talk. I wanted to know why he'd left me. He was like a father to me. I went on an errand for a few months, and when I returned, he was gone and Roland told me to kill him. I never understood why."
I knew why. "Took you a while to track him down."
"Sixteen years. He lived in this small house in Georgia. I walked up to it. He met me on the porch, sword out." Old unresolved anger sharpened his voice. "He said, 'Let's see what you've learned.' Those were the last words he ever said to me. He'd raised me since I was seven, and then left without a word. No explanation. Nothing. I looked for him for sixteen years. He was like a father to me, and that's what I got. 'Let's see what you've learned.'"
I should've been furious, but for some reason I wasn't. Maybe because I knew he was telling the truth. Maybe because Voron left me just like that, without the much-needed explanations. Maybe because things I had learned about him since his death had made me doubt everything he'd ever said to me. Whatever the case, I felt only a hollow, crushing sadness.
How touching. I understood my adoptive father's killer. Maybe after this was over, Hugh's head and I could sing "Kumbaya" together by the fire.
He was waiting. This was an awful lot of sharing. Voron had always warned me that Hugh was smart. He planned strategies for fun. This conversation was a part of some sort of plan. He had to have an angle, but what was the angle? Was he trying to see how easily I could be provoked? Hearing him talk about Voron was like ripping an old wound open with a rusty nail, but Voron would tell me to get over it. Hugh wanted to talk. Fine. I'd use it against him.
"How did you kill him?" There. Nice and neutral.
Hugh shrugged. "He was slower than I remembered."
"Too many years away from Roland." Without frequent exposure to my father's magic, Voron's rejuvenation had slowed down.
"Probably. I caught him with a diagonal to the gut. It was an ugly wound. He should've died on the spot, but he held on."
"Voron was tough." Come on. Show me your cards, Hugh. What's the worst that can happen?
"I carried him into the house and laid him on the bed, and then I sat next to him and tried to heal him. It didn't take. Still, I thought I'd put him back together. He pulled a short sword from under the pillow and stabbed himself in the stomach."
That was Voron for you. Even dying, he managed to take away Hugh's victory.
"He passed in half an hour. I waited in the house for two days, and then I finally left."
"Why didn't you bury him?"
"I don't know," Hugh said. "I should've, but I wasn't sure if he had somebody, and if he did, they deserved to know how he died. It shouldn't have been like that. I didn't want it to end like that."
None of us did. Hugh felt betrayed. He must've imagined that he would find the man who'd raised him and get all his questions answered. He must've thought when they fought, it would be a life-and-death contest between equals. Instead he found a stubborn old man who refused to talk to him. It was a hollow, bitter victory and it ate at him for over a decade. He deserved every second of it.
Voron was the god of my childhood. He protected me; he taught me; he made any house a home. No matter what hellhole we found ourselves in, I never worried because he was always with me. If any trouble dared to come our way, Voron would cut us out of it. He was my father and my mother. Later I found out that he might not have loved me with that unconditional love all children need, but I decided I didn't care.