The king and his adviser stayed back as Arik and Dunna circled one another. Dunna wasn’t surprised. Three on one would settle the fight in seconds, but wasn’t this the way of kings and lords, to stay out of the fray and let their underlings take care of the dirty work? He wondered if they were enjoying the show.
Arik charged, sword held high. Dunna knew the move well, remembered it to be a favorite of that young guard back in the day. Having been on the receiving end of that technique, the instinct was to protect the shoulder, all while leaving the belly exposed. An unexpected slice across the abdomen was a deadly finishing move, leaving the victim to die a long, excruciating death.
Dunna couldn’t recall ever having told that young guard that he left his right side exposed for half a second when he lowered his arms into the gut-spilling posture.
A well-timed kick found the mark.
Arik came down with a hard thud, his hand releasing his saber as he hit the ground. He scrabbled on the floor towards the sword, gasping to regain his breath, but Dunna was too quick and kicked the sword away towards the far wall.
And then he aimed a second kick squarely at Arik’s head. Arik went down in a heap and did not move again.
Dunna turned to the king and his adviser, scarcely believing he was still alive. He expected to find them horrified, disbelieving at the sheer improbability of him living.
But Dunna found them both looking expectantly behind him. He turned and saw a wall of royal guards charging straight for him.
There were no visible side passages or doors in the room, and even if there had been, a simple doorknob would halt his flight. The defeat of one guard had been a miracle; ten was an impossibility.
And so Dunna went the only way available to him—crashing straight through the glass windows lining the exterior wall into the swirling snow outside. Glittering shards of glass stung his cheeks as he fell, followed by the welcome, cold kiss of snowflakes.
The door slammed behind them, and the figure who had beckoned them through grabbed a chair from beside the door and propped it beneath the doorknob, wedging it shut. Tia didn’t wait for her eyes to adjust to the dim light in the servants’ corridor; she had her knife pointed at the person before they could turn around.
“Who are you?” she asked in a quavering voice, hoping her suspicions were correct and she wouldn’t actually have to resort to using her knife. Natlin and the boy had both shrunk back against the wall. The boy was taking in great gulps of air as tears streamed down his face. Natlin put an arm around the boy and regarded Tia with a healthy mixture of encouragement and disbelief.
The figure slowly turned around. The flickering light of the hallway lamps revealed a haggard female face lined with wrinkles. The woman’s gray hair was frizzy and pulled back in a messy bun; she was of short stature, which was not helped by her permanent, slumped posture. As far as Tia could recall, she had never seen this woman before.
But her eyes… Tia knew those piercing, gray eyes well.
The woman answered Tia’s question in a creaking, tired voice tinged with sadness.
“Lorna Sempis. You, Tia Inkman, would know me as Roge Sempis’s mother.” The woman eyed the knife. “You’re right to question me, child, but I’d put that back where it came from if I were you. That idiot secretary will already have told someone about your disappearing act, and they’ll be combing these corridors in a few minutes. One poorly wielded knife can’t do anything against a whole squadron of guards.”
Everyone jumped as someone outside tried opening the door, to no avail. The chair’s legs creaked, but held.
Natlin shot a glance at Tia. “We can trust this woman?”
“We have to,” she answered, lowering her knife. She turned back to Roge’s mother. “What must we do?”
“You’ll keep your heads down and follow me,” Lorna replied, setting off down the hallway at a quick pace without checking to see if they were following. Tia and Natlin exchanged a glance and after a second followed Lorna’s lead. Natlin resumed her position by Tia’s side, helping her walk, and the boy brought up the rear. His tears had slowed, but every few steps he cast a look backwards.
The quiet corridor soon joined up with another hallway. This one was busier, and servants scurried up and down the hall on various errands. They rounded one corner and then another. So far there was no sign of any guards—until Tia caught sight of a man clad in the customary red come around the corner thirty feet ahead. He was heading straight for them.
She grasped Lorna’s shoulder with a shaking hand. “What—?”
“Just through here,” Lorna murmured below her breath, and pushed open a door to their right, revealing a small room full of cleaning supplies. “I don’t think he’s seen you. Heads down!” she whisper-shouted at them as they shuffled into the room. She shut the door behind them with a quiet click, and they waited there in heart-racing silence for a whole minute before daring to speak.
“Hopefully you’ll be safe here for the time being,” Lorna said, casting a weary look around the cramped room. There were no windows—no way to escape, and certainly no place for three people to hide.
“We’re very grateful for whatever help you can offer us, Mistress Sempis,” Natlin said.
“I’m happy to help,” Lorna said, looking anything but. She turned to Tia. “I saw you in the courtyard and knew straightaway you’d spent time at the academy. You dancers all move the same.”
“Her son and I were dance partners at the academy,” Tia explained to her sister.
“Something more than that, was how Roge explained it to me,” Lorna said. “I heard you tell the secretary your name, and I remembered that you and my Roge—” Her voice broke, and her eyes shone with moisture.
“Where is Roge?” Tia asked her gently.
Lorna turned her head away, and her voice shook as she answered. “He’s gone. Gone to Ithiron, to look for his father.”
“He came to visit me a few days back. Said he hated the city, that he wanted to leave and see the rest of Hygot. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever even wanted to dance in the company. After all these years—can you imagine?” Her shoulders drooped lower.
“I just wanted him to calm down,” Lorna said, her voice a bare whisper. She wrung her hands, her knuckles white. “He was talking rash nonsense—that he was done with Haplyr, was thinking about joining a trade caravan heading to Ithiron. I-I told him it wouldn’t matter if he found his father, because he was much too important a figure in those parts to care about an illegitimate son.” Tia sucked in a breath. “I’d never told him any details about his father except that he hailed from Ithiron and visited Haplyr in a delegation.” She sniffled. “He said he’d stay the night here, and we’d talk it over in the morning. I was just happy he wasn’t charging off onto the road. When I woke up, he was gone.”
Tia laid a hand on Lorna’s shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself.”
Lorna fished a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “Thank you, dearie. I can’t help but worry. It’s a long journey to Ithiron. He could lose the way, get robbed…” She lapsed into melancholy silence, her eyes resting on Natlin and the boy in the corner. Natlin was hugging the boy close to her side again, and though his tears had slowed to a trickle, he looked lost in his own world.
“In any case,” Lorna said, some strength returning to her voice, “this business with my son has no bearing on your present situation. What we really need to do right now, dears, is figure out how to get you out of the palace.”
“You’ve already helped us so much,” Tia said. “If anyone discovered it’s you who hid us—”
“I won’t hear any more,” Lorna said, waving her hands. “This is a bad, nasty business, and I won’t let you three be killed like the rest of those poor girls. Oh yes,” she said, catching Tia’s surprised look. “I heard nearly everything that transpired with His Majesty, and I like to think I understood most of it. There are hidden doors all over the palace, you see. Lords and ladies like their servants at their constant beck and call, but don’t want them seen or heard. When I saw you in the courtyard, I let my curiosity get the best of me, and it’s a good thing I did.”
“Can we leave by way of one of these hidden doors?” Tia asked.
Lorna put a finger to her lips as she thought. “No, I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. The trouble is the guards also know all the doors and servants’ hallways; they’d be remiss if they didn’t. Instead…” She pursed her lips. “Instead, I think we need to smuggle you out of here in plain sight.”
“What do you mean?” Natlin asked.
“I mean we need to disguise you and have you walk right out the front door,” Lorna replied. A gleam lit up her gray eyes. “I may know just the right way… but let’s take stock of the situation first.” She looked Tia up and down. “You’re hurt and cannot walk well—something we will have to work around. At least you know how to navigate the city.” Tia flushed at her bluntness.
“And you, my dear,” Lorna said, turning to Natlin. “No injuries?”
“None,” she said. “But once we’re free of the palace, I don’t know the city well.”
Lorna nodded, processing. She came a step forward and bent to look the boy in the eye. “What’s your name, son?” He blushed and looked downward.
“I already asked him, but he won’t speak,” Natlin said. “But I heard his father call him Thurie, back in the throne room.”
“Thurie?” Lorna repeated, trying to catch the boy’s gaze. He raised his head, gave her a slow nod, then nestled in closer to Natlin’s side.
Lorna bit at her cheek absentmindedly, thinking. It took her a few minutes before she nodded decisively, as if she’d come to a final decision.
“Yes, that will do the trick. I’m going to leave you three here; I’ll try to be quick.”
And Lorna shuffled out of the room, leaving them alone in the chilly, dark storage room.
An eternity seemed to pass before the door opened again, though Lorna couldn’t have been gone for more than twenty minutes.
She came back holding a bundle of clothes, as well as a plain sack.
“Here,” she said, setting the sack on the ground and dumping the clothes in a heap. It was an odd mishmash of items: a yellow gown, simple but well-constructed; a small green muslin tunic and leggings set; a cloak embroidered with exquisite stitchery and beadwork.
“How did you get these?” Natlin asked, running her fingers over the beautiful embroidered cloak.
Tia started, remembering a stray detail from a conversation with Roge about his mother. “She’s a seamstress.”
“That’s right,” Lorna said. “These are clothes we were asked to mend or alter; really I could dress you three like nearly anyone in the palace, even Their Majesties themselves. The yellow gown’s for you,” she said to Natlin, holding the dress up in front of her buxom, curving figure. “Good, looks like the size is right. You’ll play attendant to your sister. As for young Thurie here, he’ll play the part of a page. They all wear the same green tunic and leggings; most people hardly notice them.”
“And my disguise?” Tia asked.
“That was the difficult part,” Lorna said, her hands clenching nervously. “You’re injured, and the guards will be on the lookout for anyone limping or using a crutch. So I thought we might just… hide your injury by pretending you’re even more sick. Dying, really.”
Lorna picked up the sack at her feet and thrust it at Tia. “I’m sorry about this… but you need to put this on.”
Tia opened the sack tentatively, expecting to see some dress in a hideous, outdated style or garish colors, but instead…
She reeled back, coughing. “What is that smell?”
Lorna smiled grimly. “The smell of death. Poor Lady Mae, to be exact. She’s been sick for months—fever, coughing, vomiting… worse. She was sick all over her dress earlier today, so I stole it from the laundry.”
“But why?” Natlin asked, pushing her palms to her watering eyes. Thurie pinched his nostrils together with his fingers.
“Because your sister here is going to pretend to be Lady Mae, heading back to her estate.”
“Her estate? Where’s that?”
“Bebrook—not even an hour’s ride from Haplyr by carriage.”
Tia thrust the sack away, unable to stand the stench anymore. “Nobody is going to believe this. It’s snowing. It’s dark already, or nearly so—why leave on a journey now, even if her estate is so close? And we have no bags, no valises… It’s not convincing.”
“Are you not satisfied?” Lorna said brusquely. “This is the best I could come up with. I can get you a wheeled chair, and your fine clothes and the sickly smell will aid the disguise. It’s either this or you’re caught, and then you die.”
Tia snorted. “Sounds more like it’s either get caught or get caught.”
“Stop it,” Natlin snapped. “If this is the best she can do, then there’s nothing more to it. We can’t navigate the palace on our own. This is our only option.” She pulled on a brown curl absentmindedly. “You’ll look like a lady of the realm. Use the right tone and nobody will question you.”
“And the baggage?” Tia reminded her.
“We’ll say your belongings are still being readied, and they’ll be delivered tomorrow.”
“Have you forgotten about Thurie? What about him?”
Natlin let out a frustrated moan. “That’s right. The pageboy disguise is perfect—but why would a page travel with us?”
Lorna drew in a breath. “I thought he could jump on the back of the carriage. On any other day a page could pass in and out of the palace gates with no issue—but the guards will have been told to stay on the lookout for a boy of Thurie’s description.”
“And so you expect him to ride on the back of a carriage all the way to Bebrook?!” Natlin asked, outraged.
“No, of course not!” Lorna barked. “First of all, you can’t go all the way to the Bebrook estate. The servants there surely know Lady Mae personally; they’ll realize straightaway you’re not who you say you are. Once the carriage clears the palace walls, give the driver an excuse. Say Lady Mae is sick and needs to stop at an inn—something like that.” She walked over to Thurie. “You’re a strong boy, right, son?”
He kept his head down, looking up at her through his dark eyelashes. After a moment’s pause, he gave her a slight nod.
Lorna lowered herself to his level, knees cracking. “That’s right, of course you are. All we’re asking for you is to hang on to the back of that carriage. It won’t be easy… but you can do it.”
Tia ran through the ridiculous plan in her head. “What will we do once we’re at the inn?”
“Give the driver the slip and find Pila and Alan, I suppose,” Natlin said, thinking aloud.
“Don’t concentrate on that now,” said Lorna. “The first order of business is getting out of the palace.” She cast an anxious look at the door, and everyone caught her meaning. Delay their escape much longer and any plan, however far-fetched, would not matter.
“Fine,” Tia said. Her stomach was twisting itself into knots, and it didn’t have anything to do with the noxious, lingering smell of Lady Mae’s dress.
Lorna clapped her hands. “Then there’s no time to waste. Get yourselves changed!”
Tia steeled herself, and with a grimace, she picked up the sack.