Joe woke with a start. Sunlight was streaming through the slats of the wooden window-blinds, and his aunt was bustling back and forth near the stove. The warm smell of oatmeal filled the air, and in the distance over the city the lonely wail of a trumpet broke the silence of the morning with its somber notes. Joe rose and rubbed his eyes. Sim and Lady were already sitting up, looking around the room with weary gazes.
“Why’s that trumpet playing?” asked Sim.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered, and he peeked through the blinds to look up at the citadel, awash in the morning light. The long purple banner of Prince Halbrinnon, which had been flying the night before, was now gone.
“It’s one of the soldiers in the keep,” their aunt explained. “He’s playing the grieving-song. One of the officials must have died last night.”
Just then the front door swung open and the children’s uncle walked in. His face was pale, his eyes drawn wide with shock.
“I can’t believe it,” he groaned as he collapsed into a chair. “They’re saying that Prince Halbrinnon is dead.”
“No!” gasped the aunt.
“Yes, it’s true. The word on the street is that he was discovered dead in his bed this morning. No one knows why. The officials are saying that he had a weak heart, and in his excitement over taking the throne, it failed him.”
“What? No! No, no, no—it can’t be!” the aunt moaned, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. “No, that can’t be true. And—and you know what? It can’t have been his heart! No, I’ll bet that old steward poisoned him!”
“That’s the worst part,” said the uncle, talking freely to his wife without a second thought for the children, who were all listening with rapt attention. “Steward Presten has declared a country-wide state of emergency, and they say that he has taken control of the government, at least until the Great King can be contacted.”
Joe, Sim, and Lady digested all this information silently. They were no strangers to their uncle and aunt’s discussions about the city’s politics. One thing they had learned, above all else, was that Steward Presten, who had long been out of favor with the royal house, was not someone to be trusted.
“But what about First Consul Dama?” asked the aunt. “Shouldn’t he be in charge at a time like this?”
“That’s just it—I think the consul has given in to the steward’s influence. If anyone ever had a weak heart, it would be Dama, not Prince Halbrinnon! No, I just can’t believe it! How could something like this happen?”
The aunt shook her head, and the children saw tears tracing long trails down her cheeks. “It doesn’t seem possible. This will change everything, won’t it? Nothing, nothing will be the same again! All the hope we ever had was set on Prince Hal.”
The uncle stood up again, his jaw clenched. “I won’t take it. I can’t change what happened to the Prince, but I can stand together with the good men who will be protesting against Steward Presten’s takeover.”
The aunt put down her spoon and locked her gaze on him. “If you go, I’m going too. I am all for the royal house, and I will not bow to another!”
They seemed to remember suddenly the three children who were watching them with wide eyes. They looked over at Joe, Sim, and Lady.
“What about the children, dear?” asked the uncle softly.
“Joe, love,” the aunt said, locking gazes with the oldest boy. “We’ll be going out for the morning. You take care of the others, now—get them their breakfast and see that the chores are done. We’re going down to the keep for a bit, but we’ll be back soon. If you need any help with anything, just knock on the door of kind old Mr. Willard across the street, all right?”
Joe nodded obediently, and then they were gone. With a sigh, he scratched his head and turned to look at his brother and sister.
“Well, I guess it’s just us for a few hours. Who’s hungry for some oatmeal?”
The other two nodded, and Joe set about ladling the hot, sticky meal into a set of wooden bowls. As he was setting them out on the table, though, his eye caught something in the center. It lay partially hidden under a parchment on the table, but its bright gleam was unmistakable.
“A coin,” he murmured, picking it up. “Uncle must have dropped it.”
Sim looked over his shoulder. “Hey, that’s not just any coin. That’s one of the new ones, right? I’ve never seen it before. Didn’t Uncle say that they had just put out a new batch of coins with Prince Hal’s face on them?”
Sim was right; the inscription along the edge bore the name of Halbrinnon and the other side showed the seal of the royal house. But Joe was frozen in place, gripped by the image on the face of the coin. He had seen a picture of Prince Hal only once before, on a parchment-painting that had been hanging in a marketplace shop. But now that he saw it again, he realized with astonishment that he recognized that face. He didn’t just recognize it from the painting in the shop; no, he had seen that face with his own eyes. This was the face of the man he had met in the street last night.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Lady. “Why are you just standing there?”
But Joe’s mind was whirring too fast for him to answer. If it was Prince Hal that he had seen in the street, and if he had been leaving the city by the Shepherd’s Gate like he said, then how could he have been found dead in his bed this morning?
Joe slipped the coin in his pocket and turned to face Sim and Lady. His face was a picture of determination.
“Let’s eat quickly, now. We have to go down to the keep, too.”
“Why?” asked Sim. “Auntie told us to stay here.”
“Because Prince Hal is still alive, and someone needs to know it.”