Even in the shifting shadows, Thurie saw the man clearly now for who he was. Yes, a creative use of cosmetics could shape that flat, plain countenance into a different face altogether. A clever ploy to fill a kingdom with fear and convince it for good of its one true enemy—all accomplished only at the expense of some innocent dancers.
“Run!” his father barked as the guard—Arik—advanced. Thurie shrank behind him. No, his father couldn’t really be suggesting—
“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!” Dunna shouted. “RUN, THURIE!” Dunna stood his ground as Arik came forward with his sword at the ready. He kept his arms outspread, a clear signal for his son to stay back.
Thurie cast a desperate look between his father and the way back to the courtyard. He couldn’t leave him. They had to go together. But Thurie saw the guard’s muscles rippling beneath his shirt and breeches, the nimble way he moved. This man was poised as a leopard ready to strike, and his father—well, it had been years since Dunna had last trained with the city guard.
In a split second, Thurie ran through all the options, crossing each one off the list.
Together, there was no outrunning this honed weapon of a man.
A man with useless, wooden hands had no hope of winning this fight.
But such a man could offer others a few precious seconds to escape.
Thurie felt a wrenching pain in his heart as he looked at his father standing tall, proud, and helpless before the guard. He memorized his father’s silhouette, and then with a sob he turned away.
Tia surged up from her chair as the king’s words bounced around the room, her crutch clattering from her lap onto the ground. She gasped in pain as she shifted too much of her weight onto her injured ankle, and her knee buckled. Natlin grabbed her arm just as Tia began to fall, hauling her back up to standing.
Meanwhile, the royal guard seemed unconcerned with Tia, Natlin, and the boy. To a trained warrior, cutting them down would be like swatting at flies. He concentrated first on Dunna Jore, moving towards him like a cat stalking a mouse. Tia’s heart sank as she registered that Dunna wasn’t holding a weapon.
This was to be a slaughter.
“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!” Dunna roared. “RUN, THURIE!”
His shout jolted them to action. “Lean on me!” Natlin said as she gripped Tia’s right arm; there was no time to grab the crutch. At an awkward, hopping jog, they fled back in the direction of the courtyard, as if playing a sick version of a children’s sack race.
Had Dunna already been slain? As they hobbled their way away from the throne room, Tia didn’t look back. If she were about to die, each further step was a gift, each extra second one more heartbeat spent in this mortal world. She would rather cross over into death facing possibility than have her last moment be spent staring at the wrong side of a sword.
Death did not come.
Step by step they crossed the room. Though each step was an eternity at their hobbled pace, it took them less than thirty seconds to get to the end of the throne room.
Tia hadn’t dared look behind her.
What she hadn’t been counting on was what lay before them as they turned the corner. Ten royal guards funneled through the courtyard door on the opposite wall. They pointed and yelled at Natlin and Tia, barreling straight towards them with swords drawn. Her legs turned to lead and the blood in her veins to ice.
Dunna didn’t need to look back to check that Thurie had run; the sound of quick, disappearing footsteps behind him was enough reassurance. From his peripheral vision he registered that the Inkman girls, too, had fled. A rush of relief flooded his body.
Time. If time was all he could give them, then that was what he would do.
Now to face the man before him. The young city guard he had known long ago was young no more. The once fresh face of the promising guard had become more defined, hardened. Arik’s jaw was set, his expression solemn. One look told Dunna all he needed to know. A different man would stop and talk, taunt him, prolong the process. Not this man. The glance they shared conveyed enough.
It’s just business, really, he remembered with a pang. Oh yes, he’d heard everything that night, through the shock and his wife’s cries.
Just business—no hard feelings. Well, that sentiment could go both ways. One last time, he thought back to that young, unassuming guard who had worked the night shift. He’d loved those days—sharing bawdy jokes with the other guards, sparring together, relaxing at a pub after their shift ended.
He readied himself for this last, final fight.
Arik darted forward, his sword a blurred path of silver carving the air. Wood met metal as Dunna raised his hands to meet the blade. The shock rippled through his body, driving him down to his knees. The blade sunk straight through the leather gloves and lodged in the wood beneath.
“Heard about that,” Arik grunted as he tried to wrestle his sword free. “Real shame.”
“How’d you find the killer?” Dunna asked, his arms shaking. “We found his apartment—all cleared out.”
Arik snorted, still working at the stuck sword. “Found a healer with disreputable clientele. Gave him some coin for information about a man looking to treat a nasty leg wound.”
Dunna didn’t waste effort responding, instead rocketing up and shifting his weight forward to outbalance Arik.
It worked. Arik’s boots slid backwards on the polished marble floor. Dunna spat in his eyes, and Arik roared, fury banishing his cool. Blinking away the spittle, Arik recovered his footing and jumped back from Dunna, succeeding in wrenching his blade from the wood.
They circled each other warily, the predator now aware its prey wouldn’t hesitate to fight dirty. The king and adviser watching fixated, the cavernous throne room, the creaking windows—all of it was just a faded backdrop. Time was all he cared about. Every second of hesitation and calculation was a victory, a chance for his boy and the two sisters to live.
Run! he prayed silently. Run, run, run!
Tia’s shoes skidded on the slippery floor as they slid to a halt. The guards charged straight for them. The stout secretary, his face inexplicably smeared with blood, was at the door leading back out to the courtyard. He bellowed at the guards as they sprinted across the room.
“Catch them! Catch them!”
Tia stifled a sob, casting a wild gaze about the room. Death before them, death behind them. She could see the whites of the guards’ eyes now, could see the razor-sharp edges of ten, gleaming swords held at the ready. Any second…
She gaped as the guards stampeded past them, in the direction of the king.
And realized the secretary had no idea what had just transpired in the throne room. All he would know was that the boy and his father had snuck into the palace—and he would of course then have assumed the worst.
A small movement from the side of the room caught her eye. There, hugging the left wall and shielded from the secretary’s view by a large potted plant, was the boy. The guards had shot right past him, their attention focused solely on getting to the king.
And suddenly, Tia saw with crystal clarity two choices before her.
Freedom lay the way of the secretary. She could see the exchange now, knew how it would take place. He wouldn’t pay more than a whit of attention to the two panicked women bursting past him into the freedom of the courtyard, screaming about the intruder trying to murder the king.
Or they could join forces with this boy, now fatherless.
The secretary started to make his way towards them at a half-jog. “What-do-we-do, what-do-we-do,” Natlin hissed through her teeth.
Another movement along the wall attracted Tia’s attention. Not the boy this time. A concealed door, no doubt to the servants’ hallways, opened in the wall. Tia’s heart lurched as familiar, gray eyes shone from within the dim corridor. A hand frantically waved to them. This way.
There was no time to perfect a plan. Tia sent a fleeting prayer up to Pelas for luck and a second one to the academy’s acting teacher, Master Sonnen.
“Behind you!” she shrieked at the secretary, her voice rising to an ear-piercing screech. Her face was the picture of terror.
And when confusion lanced across his face and he turned to look, she shot towards the boy, dragging Natlin along with her. Her ankle screamed in protest.
The boy’s small hand grasped her own. She pulled him out from his cover… and the three of them darted through the door into the unknown passages beyond.