Adamat stood perfectly still in the middle of a deep hedgerow outside of his own summer house and stared through the windows at the men in the dining room. The house was a two-story, three-bedroom affair sitting by itself in the woods at the end of a dirt path. It was a twenty-minute walk into town from here. Unlikely anyone would hear gunshots.
Four of Lord Vetas’s men milled about in the dining room, drinking and playing cards. Two of them were large and well-muscled as draft horses. A third was of middling height, with a heavy gut hanging out of his shirt and a thick black beard.
The final man was the only one Adamat recognized. He had a square face and a head that was almost comically small. His name was Roja the Fox, and he was the smallest boxer in the bareknuckle-boxing circuit run by the Proprietor back in Adopest. He could move faster than most boxers, by necessity, but he wasn’t popular with the crowds and did not fight often. What he was doing here, Adamat had no idea.
What he did know was that he feared for the safety of his children – especially his daughters – with a group of malcontents like this.
“Sergeant,” Adamat whispered.
The hedgerow rustled, and Adamat caught a glimpse of Sergeant Oldrich’s face. He had a sharp jawline, and the dim moonlight betrayed the bulge of tobacco in one cheek. “My men are in place,” Oldrich responded. “Are they all in the dining room?”
“Yes.” Adamat had observed the house for three days now. All that time he’d stood by and watched these men yell at his children and smoke cigars in his house, dropping ash and spilling beer on Faye’s good tablecloth. He knew their habits.
He knew that the fat, bearded one stayed upstairs, keeping an eye on the children all day. He knew the two big thugs escorted the children to the outhouse while Roja the Fox kept watch. He knew the four of them wouldn’t leave the children by themselves until after dark, when they’d set up their nightly card game on the dining room table.
He also knew that in three days, he’d seen no sign of his wife or his oldest son.
Sergeant Oldrich pressed a loaded pistol into Adamat’s hand. “Are you sure you want to lead on this? My men are good. They’ll get the children out unharmed.”
“I’m sure,” Adamat said. “They’re my family. My responsibility.”
“Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger if they head toward the stairs,” Oldrich said. “We don’t want them to take hostages.”
The children were already hostages, Adamat wanted to say. He bit back his words and smoothed the front of his shirt with one hand. The sky was cloudy, and now that the sun had set there would be no light to betray his presence to those inside. He stepped out of the hedgerow and was suddenly reminded of the night he’d been summoned to Skyline Palace. That was the night all this had begun: the coup, then the traitor, then Lord Vetas. Silently, he cursed Field Marshal Tamas for drawing him and his family into this.
Sergeant Oldrich’s soldiers crept out across the worn dirt path with Adamat, heading toward the front of the house. Adamat knew there were another eight behind the house. Sixteen men in total. They had the numbers. They had the element of surprise.
Lord Vetas’s goons had Adamat’s children.
Adamat paused at the front door. Adran soldiers, their dark-blue uniforms almost impossible to see in the darkness, took up spots beneath the dining room windows, their muskets at the ready. Adamat looked down at the door. Faye had chosen this house, instead of one closer to town, in part because of the door. It was a sturdy oak door with iron hinges. She felt that a strong door made her family safer.
He’d never had the heart to tell her the door frame was riddled with termites. In fact, Adamat had always meant to have it replaced.
Adamat stepped back and kicked right next to the doorknob.
The rotten wood exploded with the impact. Adamat ducked into the front hall and brought his pistol up as he rounded the corner.
All four of the goons burst into action. One of the big men leapt toward the back doorway leading to the staircase. Adamat held his pistol steady and fired and the man dropped.
“Don’t move,” Adamat said. “You’re surrounded!”
The remaining three goons stared back at him, frozen in place. He saw their eyes go to his spent pistol, and then they all went for him at once.
The volley of musket balls from the soldiers outside burst the window and glass showered the room like frost. The remaining goons went down, except for Roja the Fox. He stumbled toward Adamat with a knife drawn, blood soaking the sleeve of one arm.
Adamat reversed the grip on his pistol and brought the butt down on Roja’s head.
Just like that, it was over.
Soldiers spilled into the dining room. Adamat pushed past them and bolted up the stairs. He checked the children’s rooms first: all empty. Finally, the master bedroom. He flung the door open with such force it nearly flew off the hinges.
The children were huddled together in the narrow space between the bed and the wall. The older siblings embraced the younger ones, shielding them in their arms as best they could. Seven frightened faces stared up at Adamat. One of the twins was crying, no doubt from the crack of the muskets. Silent tears streamed down his chubby cheeks. The other poked his head out timidly from his hiding place beneath the bed.
Adamat breathed a sigh of relief and fell to his knees. They were alive. His children. He felt the tears come unbidden as he was mobbed by small bodies. Tiny hands reached out and touched his face. He threw his arms wide, grabbing as many of them as possible and pulling them closer.
Adamat wiped the tears from his cheeks. It wasn’t seemly to cry in front of the children. He took a great breath to compose himself and said, “I’m here. You’re safe. I’ve come with Field Marshal Tamas’s men.”
Another round of happy sobs and hugs followed before Adamat was able to restore order.
“Where is your mother? Where’s Josep?”
Fanish, his second oldest, helped to shush the other children. “They took Astrit a few weeks ago,” she said, pulling at her long black braid with shaking fingers. “Just last week they came and took Mama and Josep.”
“Astrit is safe,” Adamat said. “Don’t worry. Did they say where they were taking Mama and Josep?”
Fanish shook her head.
Adamat felt his heart fall, but he didn’t let it show on his face. “Did they hurt you? Any of you?” He was most concerned for Fanish. She was fourteen, practically a woman. Her shoulders were bare beneath her thin nightgown. Adamat searched for bruises and breathed a word of thanks there were none.
“No, Papa,” Fanish said. “I heard the men talking. They wanted to, but…”
“A man came when they took away Mama and Josep. I didn’t hear his name, but he was dressed as a gentleman and he spoke very quietly. He told them that if they touched us before he gave them permission, he’d…” She trailed off and her face went pale.
Adamat patted her on the cheek. “You’ve been very brave,” he reassured her gently. Inside, Adamat fumed. Once Adamat was no longer any use to him, Vetas no doubt would have turned those goons loose on the children without a second thought.
“I’m going to find them,” he said. He patted Fanish on the cheek again and stood up. One of the twins grabbed his hand.
“Don’t go,” he begged.