What’s Albert going to do?” a boy named Jim demanded. “Where’s Albert?”Albert stepped from an inconspicuous position off to one side. He mounted the steps, moving carefully still, not entirely well even now.He carefully chose a position equidistant between Caine and Sam.“What should we do, Albert?” a voice asked plaintively.Albert didn’t look out at the crowd except for a quick glance up, like he was just making sure he was pointed in the right direction. He spoke in a quiet, reasonable monotone. Kids edged closer to hear.“I’m a businessman.”“True.” Toto.“My job is organizing kids to work, taking the things they harvest or catch, and redistributing them through a market.”“And getting the best stuff for yourself,” someone yelled to general laughter.“Yes,” Albert acknowledged. “I reward myself for the work I do.”This blunt admission left the crowd nonplussed.“Caine has promised that if I stay here he won’t interfere. But I don’t trust Caine.”“No, he doesn’t,” Toto agreed.“I do trust Sam. But . . .”And now you could hear a pin drop.“But . . . Sam is a weak leader.” He kept his eyes down. “Sam is the best fighter ever. He’s defended us many times. And he’s the best at figuring out how to survive. But Sam”— Albert now turned to him—“You are too humble. Too willing to step aside. When Astrid and the council sidelined you, you put up with it. I was part of that myself. But you let us push you aside and the council turned out to be useless.”Sam stood stock-still, stone-faced.“Let’s face it, you’re not really the reason things are better here, I am,” Albert said. “You’re way, way braver than me, Sam. And if it’s a battle, you rule. But you can’t organize or plan ahead and you won’t just put your foot down and make things happen.”Sam nodded slightly. It was hard to hear. But far harder was seeing the way the crowd was nodding, agreeing. It was the truth. The fact was he’d let the council run things, stepped aside, and then sat around feeling sorry for himself. He’d jumped at the chance to go off on an adventure and he hadn’t been here to save the town when they needed it.“So,” Albert concluded, “I’m keeping my things here, in Perdido Beach. But there will be free trading of stuff between Perdido Beach and the lake. And Lana has to be allowed to move freely.”Caine bristled at that. He didn’t like Albert laying down conditions.Albert wasn’t intimidated. “I feed these kids,” he said to Caine. “I do it my way.”Caine hesitated, then made a tight little bow of the head.“I want you to say it,” Albert said with a nod toward Toto.Sam saw panic in Caine’s eyes. If he lied now the jig would be up for him. Toto would call him out, Albert would support Sam, and the kids would follow Albert’s lead.Sam wondered if Caine was just starting to realize what Sam had known for some time: if anyone was king, it was neither Sam nor Caine, it was Albert.

~ Michael Grant