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Tia turned toward the advancing footsteps and let out a gasp. The boy sketch artist and his father were running swiftly towards them from the other end of the throne room. She caught a flicker of movement in the far, shadowy corner—the guard at the back of the room moving towards the king to protect him.
King Orrus rose to his feet, his face set in a stony mask.
“Who are these interlopers? Arrest them, and then go remind the gods-damned secretary I gave strict orders not to be disturbed.”
“Your Majesty, please!” said the boy’s father, speaking quickly. “My name is Dunna Jore, and I used to be a member of the city guard. My son here, Thurie, may be small, but it’s him who drew the sketch of the Firefly Hollow Killer. What I mean to say is that we are loyal subjects, coming before you in this manner out of desperation. You must know: a traitor is lurking in your palace!”
King Orrus’s eyebrows drew together. “What nonsense is this?” The adviser at his side let out a sigh, but the king waved his hand. “No, Flank, I’ll hear him out. Perhaps he speaks the truth—and if not, he’ll provide us a bit of entertainment. My apologies, Miss Inkman. Now go ahead. What is this treachery you speak of?”
As Tia listened in wonder, Dunna Jore began to weave a tale about a royal guard who had disguised himself as the Firefly Hollow Killer so he could pin the crime on a notorious, wanted criminal.
The whole thing was too unbelievable, too fantastic to be truth… but Tia kept flashing back to her confusion when she’d heard the Firefly Hollow Killer and the stagehand were one and the same.
Wasn’t it strange for a killer to progress from preying on lone girls to suddenly staging a massacre before the entire city? Or was there simply no understanding the minds of the mad?
Perhaps this man just wanted attention. Perhaps he was searching for conspiracies that didn’t exist. But some whisper in the back of Tia’s mind began wondering if maybe—just maybe—Dunna Jore and his son may have stumbled across some plot just perfect enough to fool a kingdom.
Thurie kept sneaking glances at King Orrus as his father continued his story. He couldn’t help it; searching the faces of those around him had become a compulsion, a necessity, ever since that awful night. And this was King Orrus, ruler of all Hygot, little more than ten steps away. How could he not look?
The king was a robust-looking man in his mid-thirties. He gazed down from his throne, dark, clever eyes seeing all. Thurie thought he would have been handsome were it not for the pressure of running a kingdom; the king’s face was perhaps more lined than it should be, though he disguised it with an impeccably trimmed beard. An aura of energy surrounded him; here was a man who had learned to make quick decisions that could mean life or death to his people.
Thurie knew full well that his father’s decision to sneak into the palace had been a bad one. His hope was they would simply be thrown out—but all bets were off when counting on the mercy of kings. The king kept his features neutral as his father wound up his story, but the man called Flank was doing a worse job hiding his thoughts. A muscle on the side of his mouth was twitching, his eyes narrowed to an angry squint.
These men would have been seated front and center before the Queen’s Fair dancers. Could it really have been just yesterday that those dancers were slain? There wasn’t a single scratch on the king or his adviser. Thurie’s thoughts flashed back to the burned, mangled bodies strewn about the stage.
There are some things worse than death.
That night when Thurie had greeted death at the door, the hooded man could have killed all three of them. It would have been almost too quick, too easy. But the hooded man had wanted to make a point, to cause suffering. He had let Thurie live precisely so that his father did not kill himself from grief. It was a thought that often kept Thurie from sleep.
But surely a traitor to the kingdom would want to cause the most damage, the most destruction. And what better way to shake Hygot to its core than killing its king?
Thurie’s breaths grew shallow as he studied the king and his adviser again. It was hard to see with the shifting light from the rising snowstorm outside… but no, he was confident.
King Orrus and Flank could not have been more than twenty feet from the stage when the bombs detonated, but somehow, miraculously, they were completely untouched. And the killer could have simply leaped from the stage towards the king… They had all seen how fast he had struck down the dancers.
A wild, impossible theory began to form in his head.
Tia noticed the man’s son sweating profusely as Dunna Jore concluded his story. The small slip of a boy always had a constant nervous look to him, like a bird about to fly off a branch, but she had never seen him look so anxious.
“And that,” Dunna said, “is why I came before Your Majesty in this way. That man may be in the palace right this second, thinking he has gotten away with this heinous crime.”
Tia shuddered. The story was so unlikely… so improbable… but not impossible. She looked to Natlin. Her sister’s cheeks were flushed, and she bit nervously at her lip as her gaze moved from the king to the royal guard, from the adviser to Dunna Jore and his son.
As for King Orrus, his expression had grown more and more somber as Dunna spun his tale. Now he bent his head towards his adviser, and they conversed in low tones.
The snow pummeled the tall windows, causing the light in the throne room to shift in and out. Soon enough it would start getting dark. Surely Alan and Pila must be missing them, wondering where they’d gone. By the time they got back it would be too late to strike out from the city; they would have to wait another day to get on the road.
A huge gust of wind beat at the windows. The room was illuminated for half a moment before the wind settled…
…And Tia heard Natlin suck in a breath.
“Tia,” her sister whispered. The king and his adviser, still deep in their own quiet conversation, did not notice.
“What’s wrong?” she murmured back. She looked up at Natlin. If the boy sketch artist looked nervous, then her sister looked positively terrified.
“That man… The guard there…” She inclined her head slightly toward the royal guard now standing by the throne. “That’s the man who came to the general store—the one who wanted to hire Hob.” Her voice shook, but voice held conviction.
The guard stood a few paces back from the throne. It was easy to forget he was in the room, so still did he stand. He kept his head bowed respectfully, as if indicating he would not share any part of these confidential conversations.
Or was he keeping his head down to obscure his features?
It was at that moment that several things happened in quick, staccato succession.
The young boy started frantically pulling at his father’s coat, trying to tug him away from the other men.
The guard lifted his head at the commotion, and met Dunna Jore’s gaze. Dunna stumbled back a step as their gazes locked, let out a shocked cry, and swept out his arm to push his son behind him.
The guard drew his saber in one swift, expert motion. He threw a glance at King Orrus, then moved in front of the king to face Tia, Natlin, the boy, and Dunna Jore. And the king rose from his seat, and instructed his loyal guard in a cold, deadened voice. “It seems our ruse is up. Arik, kill them all.”