Natlin, to her credit, recovered her nerve in the carriage and demanded the two guards explain why the king would summon Tia, of all people, to the palace. But the guards professed ignorance; all they knew was that King Orrus himself wished to speak with her.
They rocked forward as the carriage came to a halt. One of the guards opened the door for a word with someone outside, and a few seconds later came the clank of a metal gate opening. The guard reentered the carriage, a whip cracked, and their journey resumed.
Metal gates—so they must be within the palace walls now.
The horses walked on and on, drawing them into the palace complex. Tia remembered how she had gazed through the gate at the sprawling palace grounds with Roge that day long ago. She’d had some vague, unformed understanding that eventually she would come to know the massive, glittering structure that was the palace, entertaining the lords, ladies, and royals who called it their home, but never had she imagined she would make her entrance in a carriage with an escort of royal guards. She didn’t know whether she felt more like a noblewoman or a wanted criminal.
The carriage finally clattered to a halt, and one of the guards motioned for them to get out. They emerged from the dark carriage into a courtyard full of people all looking their way—and a good amount of the looks were distinctly unfriendly.
She reached for Natlin’s hand again.
Gods, what were they doing here? What was going on?
Thurie took a step back as the secretary in front of the gilt double doors puffed up his chest and conjured up a much-practiced look of disdain.
“I don’t care who you are. Do you know how many people barge in here, just the same as you? Well, let me tell you, everyone thinks that their problem is special, that they deserve to see their king straightaway.”
Thurie could imagine the speech working well on most people—but his father was not most people. Dunna Jore, who stood nearly a foot taller than the balding secretary, glared down his nose at the man and launched into the lengthy story once again.
As his father had explained on their way to the palace, he had finally realized who the man in the sketch reminded him of.
“It must be ten years or more since I saw the man,” his father had said. “He was in the Azure Borough guard station, on the night shift.
“If my recollection bears true he was a hard worker—put in his time and didn’t seem to mind working dusk to dawn. Young, quiet fellow, with an ear to the ground—good for investigation work. The kind that’s smart but doesn’t let on straightaway he’s got a bit better than mud for brains.
“Anyway, eventually either someone noticed the Azure Borough guard station was hiding a gem of a young guard or he put in for a transfer. Not working days or in a different part of the city, but up into the royal guard.” His father shot Thurie a meaningful look.
“I believe that was the last I heard of him. His name I can’t recall, but his face… For us artists it’s always the face that sticks with us. You know that.” Thurie nodded half-heartedly as he tried to fit the pieces together in his mind. What was it that kept reminding him of that infernal knocking?
His father’s voice quickened as his pace sped up. “Well, it’s no matter about the man’s name. He may possess some skills with cosmetics, enough to give us that blurred impression of our favorite menace of Firefly Hollow. He’s picked a wanted killer for his patsy—clever. But I have his face straight in my mind now, clear as day. If there’s a killer close to the king, then His Majesty himself needs to know immediately. There’s the Corimian element to contend with, after all—who knows if the man is working alone or with someone else?”
So here they were, waiting their turn in a stone courtyard with every other person in Haplyr who had decided to spend their day angling for an audience with their king. Yet no matter Dunna’s explanations, the puffed-up secretary would hear none of it, demanding instead that Dunna step aside or else be thrown out of the palace. Thurie almost wished his father would push the matter a bit too far—anything to get out of the cold and back home.
But mostly he wanted to get out of the crowd. One woman to their right kept up a constant murmur under her breath as she scanned the people around her with darting eyes. By the way the secretary’s eyes skipped over her, Thurie could already tell the woman was wasting her time waiting, as were two men who kept shooting each other death glares when they weren’t exchanging a rapid-fire back-and-forth of colorful insults—some dispute to do with counterfeit goods.
Rebuffed and with no recourse, Dunna stifled a snarl and was just turning away from the useless secretary when a carriage pulled into the courtyard. Two young women, dressed in commoners’ clothes and accompanied by royal guards, clambered out of it. Brown hair blazed copper in the weak sunlight.
Thurie gaped; he’d recognize Tia Inkman anywhere now, and that was her sister with her again. What were they doing here?
“They must want her to identify the killer,” Dunna muttered. “And maybe they have him and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not him who killed those dancers.” He rolled his shoulders back in frustration, watching as the secretary waved them through the door after less than thirty seconds’ conversation. The whole courtyard swarmed with resentful murmurs.
The secretary cleared his throat, and the whispers died. “His Majesty’s audience hours are over. The king is speaking with a survivor of yesterday’s attacks and will not meet with anyone else today. Please come back at a later date or air your grievances at a city guard station.”
Thurie crept closer to his father’s side as the stone walls echoed with cries of indignation.
The guards shepherded Tia and Natlin through the crowd until they reached a man in official garb stationed before a great, carved door.
“And they are…?” the man asked their guard companions, puffing his chest even more than it already was.
“This here’s Tia Inkman,” one of the guards replied.
“Ah, very good.” The man scratched a note in a book before him. His eyes alit on Natlin. “And this young woman…?”
“My sister,” Tia said. “We’ll see the king together.” It was bold of her to say, but she didn’t allow herself to flinch. Surely Natlin could be party to whatever the king wished to say to her.
The man sniffed at the perceived impertinence, but he nodded after a few seconds’ hesitation. Tia wondered how he treated those who hadn’t just been involved in a bloody massacre—not well, she guessed.
The heavy door creaked open, and a herald ushered them into a different world, one that sparkled and gleamed and glistened. Soaring ceilings painted with images of the gods, thirty-foot-tall tapestries—under different circumstances, she could have gaped for hours. She heard a deep intake of breath from behind her and knew Natlin felt the same.
They trailed the herald, Tia struggling to keep up with his smart pace. The click of her crutch on the marble floors echoed in the cavernous room, strangely devoid of other people. They turned right and there before them, perched upon his golden throne, sat King Orrus, ruler of all Hygot.
The king’s dark eyes burned bright, and she had a sudden vision of a spider waiting expectantly in the center of a web. A man dressed in nobleman’s clothes sat to the king’s right. Aside from the king, his companion, and a guard stationed at the far wall, Tia and Natlin were the only other people in the room.
The herald drew in a breath, but the king raised his hand for silence.
“No need for announcements,” the king called. His voice bounced about the room. “Thank you for your services, but Lord Flank and I will handle matters from here.” The herald bowed and made his exit.
The king cleared his throat and waved a hand at them. “Come, sit. We heard you were injured just before the attack; there’s no need for you to stand and be in discomfort.” Indeed, there was a chair placed before the throne.
She ran over the king’s words as she hobbled forward and took a seat. He’d heard she was injured? Who had let him know that? It must mean someone had survived—Mistress Oerfall, perhaps? She felt a tiny swell of hope.
“My apologies for not having a chair for you,” said the king, eyes flitting to Natlin before returning to Tia’s own. “We did not anticipate you having a companion.”
She found her mouth suddenly parched. “This is my sister, Natlin Inkman, Your Majesty,” she managed.
“And you are, of course, welcome here,” the king said to Natlin, before his attention shifted once more to Tia. “You must have found it strange,” he said, “to be summoned here. Before we speak further, let me confirm: are you or are you not Miss Tia Inkman, originally from Fenlick, member of the Royal Dance Theater, who managed to escape yesterday’s attacks?”
She inclined her head. “That is all true, Sire.”
The king’s eyes glittered. “And are you, Miss Inkman, also not that selfsame girl who was nearly killed by the Firefly Hollow Killer?”
“Yes,” she said, heart thudding against her ribs.
“Ah,” was all the king said in response, leaning back in his throne as he contemplated her—assessing, calculating. The light shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows faded in and out as clouds blew by overhead.
“There are rumors floating around Haplyr,” the king said, “that the Firefly Hollow Killer and the man who murdered your friends are one and the same. There are also rumors that same man has ties to Corim.”
She swallowed, dared herself to speak. “And… is there truth to what people are saying?”
“Yes,” the king replied simply.
Her head swam as she reminded herself to breathe in and out, in and out. It couldn’t be true. She had etched that man’s face into her memory, confirmed his appearance to the city guard…
She lowered her eyes and took a breath. “Sire, I saw the Firefly Hollow Killer clearly when I was attacked. He looked Hygotian-born—”
“And you saw correctly,” the king said. “He may not be Corimian, but rather a traitor to our kingdom, a man who bears the face of our own people, but whose heart lies with our enemy.”
A first few flakes of snow drifted down outside. The room was deathly, absolutely silent.
“Sire—” she began. From the corner of her eye, she saw Natlin’s fists clench, but she pushed on. “Sire, why did you wish to speak with me?” She didn’t care if it broke every rule of etiquette to baldly ask the question. All she wanted was to conclude this strange meeting so she could leave this rotting city.
“Any ruler would wish to speak with a subject who had been touched by so much violence. To apologize for these acts upon your person, to listen to your story… But your suspicions are correct. That is not the primary reason I asked you be brought here.” The king leaned forward in his throne.
“Please allow me to share some details with you… I promise it will make sense in the end.
“We all know the basic facts about Corim—restless… power-hungry. I am sure your sister has told you of the unnatural fire burning beneath the bog, the terrible dreams driving innocent people to walk into Bleskar, without a single care for themselves.
“These are magical attacks on our kingdom, perpetrated by Corim. And Hygotians in the east cannot help but start wondering whether the fight is already lost—whether they should submit. You, more than anyone else in Hygot, must be able to see how dangerous such a notion can be. Your friends would still be breathing if it weren’t for these evil, catching ideas.”
Her stomach roiled. Of all the things she had expected King Orrus to say, this speech hadn’t come close to entering her mind. What in the world did this have to do with her?
And suddenly she had a sudden flash of understanding. Her cheeks flushed, and the quiet sadness that she’d grown used to burned away as a simmering anger ignited in her core. It felt good to burn.
“And there is something you wish for me to do, Sire?”
“Very sharp of you. Yes. With my blessing, you will return to Fenlick. Show them how Corimian ideas slew good, Hygotian daughters. This man wished to make a statement, to make a mockery of Hygotian heritage. Well, we will use his actions against him and draw the kingdom together. The outrage about the attack is already spreading throughout Hygot, and you, Miss Inkman, can play a small part in fanning those flames.” Snow battered at the windows; the sparse flakes of snow had grown to a heavy, whirling mass of white.
She felt tears bloom in her eyes. Wynna was dead—and not just dead, but murdered. Her father’s livelihood had been destroyed by the fire and her mother driven from her mind by this vile Corimian curse. If it were truly the will of Corim that her world be shattered, why not strike back? She was just opening her mouth to say yes when she heard the sudden, resounding echo of running footsteps approaching from behind.