Ime takes the scroll, unrolls it, and spreads it out on the table. Meah leans close. On one side is the legend of the cliff city. On the other is a simple, hand-drawn map. Ime looks up at Pu’ah. “Do you know the way?”
Jaxon smiles and points to the map. “I do. Legends tend to have directions in them if you know how to look. We need to travel through the caves of the mountains to the forest of Spirits. The canyon lies on the other side.” As he speaks he traces the route on the map. “There is an entrance to the caves located nearby. No one knows of it besides Elder Pu’ah and myself. Even if the Blood King’s men manage to find their way there, they won’t be able to follow us into the caves.”
“I’ve heard the caves in these mountains are dangerous. Creatures that live deep in the dark eat the flesh of those who enter,” Daniil says.
Kylii nods his head. “I’ve heard they used to be men, but turned their backs on the sun for the protection of the caves. They can see in the dark and know the caves better than any living thing.”
“We should be fine with the number of magic users we have. The creatures in the caves may be dangerous, but using fire we can keep them at bay,” Jaxon says, his eyes flashing to Ime for a moment.
Ime stands suddenly. “Please excuse me. I need some air. This talk of war and legendary cities is suffocating.” He leaves the table and exits through the back of the hut.
Those around the table watch him leave in silence. Meah’s concerned eyes watch his back disappear into the night. She feels eyes on her and knows Jaxon and Pu’ah are staring at her.
“Excuse me,” she says. She stands and quickly follows Ime out.
The silence at the table continues as she leaves the tent. The map left on the table rustles as breezes move across the hut. Kylii grabs it and looks at Jaxon. “So, if this city is only a legend, how did you get a map to it?”
“Like I said, legends have directions in them if you know where to look. I knew where to look,” Jaxon explains. “Travelling the lands for several years helped, too. It’s amazing the number of stories you hear.”
“Meah may trust you, slave trader, but we remember what you did to our homes and our lives,” Bern says suddenly. “How do we know you aren’t leading us into a trap for the Blood King?”
Jaxon hesitates before turning to Bern. “If you are looking for an apology for what I’ve done, you will have to keep waiting. I know that an apology from me would mean nothing to you. If you don’t trust me, that’s fine. You can stay here or try to find somewhere to go on your own.”
“We will stay by Meah’s side. We promised to protect her.”
“You treat Meah like a saint, always offering to sacrifice your lives for her. Can’t you see she hates it every time you say such things? She didn’t save your lives to have you throw them away. She wants you to keep fighting.”
Rava slams her hands on the table and glares at Jaxon. “You speak like everything you’ve done in the past is suddenly erased! You helped bring slaves to the Arena. You helped kill many people!”
“Rava!” Mava tries to calm her sister, to pull her back into her seat. But Rava pulls her arm away.
“Why are you so interested in helping us all of a sudden? Why are you so eager to help Ime and Meah?”
Jaxon waits for her to finish. He takes a deep breath and slowly stands. “Don’t talk as though you know what is going on. You are too blinded by your misplaced faith in Meah to understand what has happened. You can’t see that Ime may be the only one who can stop the Blood King.”
“What do you mean?” Daniil asks.
Bruer leans forward. “Ime’s fire magic scared the Blood King so much he had to take it away from Ime when he was just a boy. Why would he do that unless he knew it made Ime powerful enough to threaten even him?”
The hut has gone silent and every eye is on their table. Jaxon searches the faces of the freed slaves, angrily. “Listen to me. You are all free. You have a choice. You can run off and try to find your way home. Most of you will be recaptured by the Blood King’s men or by other slave traders. Those of you who manage to find your way home, how long do you think the peace will last? How long before more slave traders come for you, your families, your friends?”
Many eyes fall to the floor, unwilling to face the truth of Jaxon’s words.
“Your other choice is to stop the Blood King. That is the only way the Arena, the slave trading, the fear, and the dying will stop. But you are all free. I can’t make that choice for you. Ime can’t make that choice for you. Meah can’t make that choice for you. You must make that choice for yourself.” Jaxon storms out of the hut.
Pu’ah rises to his feet, watching Jaxon leave sadly. “I wish for all of you to excuse him. He has always been a bit on the dramatic side. This celebration was not meant for talks of such dark things. Please eat, dance, and forget about such heavy things tonight. This is a celebration of new life. Let the music play!”
The musicians resume playing and conversation slowly follows. But the room is retains an enhanced air of gravity. Daniil and Kylii move closer to Pu’ah.
“You almost sounded like a father apologizing for his misbehaving child,” Kylii jokes.
Pu’ah laughs. “Is it that obvious? Jaxon didn’t really want me telling anyone he was my son.”
Daniil spits his drink out across the table coughing. “Excuse me, are you saying he actually is your son?”
Daniil and Kylii look at each other and smile, having trouble containing their laughter.