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Despite all of Tia’s misgivings, Lorna Sempis’s plan so far seemed to be working perfectly. They staggered their walking; staying in a group would have looked too suspicious. Lorna walked ten paces ahead of everyone else, as she was the only one who knew the layout of the palace, and Thurie followed behind her. Natlin and Tia brought up the rear, Tia doing her best to keep her steps steady and even. Each step felt like a knife was worming its way between the tendons of her ankle.
The ornate cloak’s hood draped over her face just enough to hide her features, especially in the dim, lamp-lit hallways. The stink of the dress, meanwhile, both identified Tia as the noble Lady Mae, as well as caused anyone walking down the hall to give them a wide berth. Even the guards they passed didn’t spare more than a glance in their direction.
“How embarrassing for the real Lady Mae,” Natlin muttered to Tia.
“Her misfortune is our blessing,” she replied through clenched teeth, then went back to counting steps in her head. Just ten steps—you can do it. Eight. Nine… That’s ten. And now ten more—come on, what are ten measly steps?
Fortunately, their first stop, the healing ward, wasn’t an overly long walk. Lorna jerked her head at a door to her right and waited down the hallway with Thurie as Natlin and Tia approached.
Natlin was playing Lady Mae’s attendant, so she was the one who had to actually speak with the healers to procure a wheeled chair. Luckily, she took to her role with relish; as she knocked on the door, she straightened her posture so that she appeared to grow three inches, and she radiated cool disdain. The healer who spoke with Natlin quailed under her haughty expression and immediately wheeled out a luxurious chair, complete with a cushy, padded seat and four well-greased wheels.
Without a shred of acting, Tia sank down into the chair with a heavy sigh of relief. With a subtle nod to Lorna and Thurie, they resumed their journey, Natlin pushing Tia from behind. Tia kept her eyes downcast, the hood hiding her face in shadow—all the better to keep up the disguise.
Now all they needed to do was get to the carriage house. Lorna turned down this hallway and that corridor, and nobody, not the other servants or the guards, paid them any mind. Maybe they would really pull off this laughable plan after all…
“Hey there, boy! Come over here.”
A guard ahead of them waved a hand at Thurie, beckoning him over. An icy shiver raced over Tia’s skin, and she heard Natlin’s sharp intake of breath from behind her. Natlin slowed the pace, not wanting to pass Thurie and leave him behind. Further down the hallway, Lorna halted, her head cocked slightly to listen to the guard. She dug through the pockets of her smock as if she had lost something, a pretense for stopping right in the middle of the hall.
So close. They’d been so close.
Thurie approached the guard, his footsteps reluctant.
The guard let out an annoyed huff. “What’s wrong with you pageboys nowadays? You know, when I was young they used a switch and trained us proper. Pick up the pace when your betters address you!”
Thurie looked side to side nervously, but he straightened his slouch. Tia’s heart thumped wildly. Would the guard recognize him? What if the guard asked him a direct question?
“That’s better,” the guard said. “I want you to head to the king’s council room and tell Captain Weston we’ve swept the hallways on the first floor. Ask him for his next instructions. You understand?”
Thurie gave him a quick nod.
The guard’s eyes narrowed. “That’s ‘Yes, sir.’” Tia held her breath as the guard lifted an eyebrow expectantly. Natlin’s pace pushing the chair had slowed to a crawl.
One second dragged into the next as the guard waited for Thurie’s reply. He opened his mouth—and fled down the hall.
“What the—” The guard stared open-mouthed at Thurie sprinting away. Tia could see the gears turning in his head, putting the pieces together…
“Stop that boy!” the guard roared, giving chase. Everyone else in the hallway was slow to react; one man half-heartedly reached out a hand to block Thurie’s path, but he dodged it easily, streaking down the corridor like an arrow in flight. The guard pounded down the hallway after him, but hulking man that he was, he had nothing on Thurie’s swift, bounding strides. Well ahead of the guard, Thurie came to the end of the passage and sped left, disappearing from view.
The corridor filled with the buzz of gossip. Natlin wheeled Tia closer to Lorna, taking the chance that everyone was preoccupied enough not to notice it strange for a noblewoman to exchange words with a seamstress.
“Which way is he heading?” Tia murmured.
“Not the right way,” Lorna answered.
“What should we do?” breathed Natlin.
“We continue on,” Lorna said. “There’s nothing we can do for him—who knows where he is by now? He could bring the whole force of the guard down upon us.” She sighed fretfully, squared her shoulders, and resumed walking.
Tia watched her go. Lorna’s words rang true, and Tia hated her for it. They’d saved Thurie—and now were just going to abandon him? Her fingers twitched, remembering the feel of his hand in her own.
She looked back over her shoulder. Natlin’s face was gray. The two sisters shared a look.
And when Lorna turned right at the end of the hallway, trundling steadfastly forward, they turned left.
Thurie hung a quick left and then a right, his gut his only guide. The world blurred around him as he ran and ran and ran, weaving around servants.
Though sometimes he didn’t have the luxury of dodging. A door opened on his right, the sweet smell of yeast and sugar billowing forth. Half a second later a servant bearing a tray of bread rolls emerged, just in time for Thurie not to be able to avoid him. A dozen rolls went flying into the air, and he didn’t stop to survey the damage as a creative string of curses trailed him down the hall.
Had he lost the guard? And where in the world was he headed?
His legs burned and he felt a stitch forming in his side. Gasping for air, he dared a look over his shoulder.
Nothing, aside from a bunch of servants, all gawping his way.
But it would only be a matter of time—seconds, maybe—until the guard caught up. Thurie skidded to the end of the corridor…
And very slowly, very calmly turned down the righthand passage.
You’re just a page, on some errand or other, he thought to himself, well aware of the sweat on his brow, his reddened cheeks, his mussed hair. Lorna Sempis had thought blending in was their only hope of escape, so pelting pell-mell through the palace wasn’t going to cut it.
A door on his left banged open and a maid outfitted in smart whites and grays emerged, maneuvering a trolley laden with pastries. Thurie’s heart rapped against his ribcage as her eyes took in his disheveled appearance—and caught the gaze of someone she knew behind him.
“Merribel!” she called, lifting a hand in greeting.
“Do they need more tea?” Thurie heard a cheery older woman reply.
“No, His Majesty adjourned the meeting and retired to his chambers,” the maid replied. “Couldn’t have come soon enough—I have the nastiest headache.” Now that she mentioned it, her face was a bit drawn, Thurie noticed.
Merribel tutted. “Poor thing. Listen, I’ll take that cart back to the kitchens—go get some rest.”
The woman flashed Merribel a grateful smile. “Really? You’re sure?”
“Good, then I’ll just straighten up in there.”
“No, no, that won’t do.” Thurie felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to face a plump woman with frizzy gray hair, also clothed in a maid uniform. Merribel smiled down at him. “Are you on your way somewhere, boy?”
He thought fast. As far as he could see it, he had two options: continue running blindly through the labyrinth that comprised the servants’ corridors and eventually get caught… or forego the maze and venture into more uncertain territory, hopefully to freedom. He shook his head.
“Wonderful,” Merribel said, her face breaking into a hundred crinkles. She fished a rag from her smock. “Here, use this to tidy up in there, then come back to the kitchens. I’ll make sure Master Raglan leaves you a cookie.”
The empty room within was a far cry from the utilitarian servants’ hallways. Thick tapestries, a sumptuous red rug, and a merry, crackling fire kept the room warm. A polished wooden round table took up the whole center of the room. A closed door on the opposite wall loomed ominously at Thurie from across the room.
He gulped. What lay beyond that door—freedom? Death?
He took some time to walk around the table, to smooth his hair, to breath—he felt like he hadn’t inhaled for minutes on end. The image of his father swam before his eyes and he pushed it aside with a wrenching half-cry. Survival—that was all that mattered now.
He kept circling the desk, every so often stealing sneaky glances at the door.
What was that?
A flicker of brightness snagged his gaze away from the door. A soft, misty glow was illuminating the back of one of the chairs. His lips parted as the wispy silver glow grew stronger.
The mist was rising from a strange, small slab of wood that lay on the chair seat, as if someone had been keeping it close and then in a moment of distraction forgotten to take it with them. The maid’s words echoed in his mind.
His Majesty’s adjourned the meeting and retired to his chambers.
Thurie moved closer, his nose now just a few inches away from the slab. He reached out a hand to touch it, then thought better. He’d heard the same stories about magical objects that everyone else had, and he didn’t fancy losing a finger or being possessed by a spirit.
In contrast to its fancy golden frame, the wood itself was rough, unpolished, and covered in a mass of handwritten messages. The letters were blackened, as if the words had been burned instead of etched into the wood.
Thurie tilted his head as he tried to make out one of the messages through the sparkling, swirling mist. Some of the words were abbreviated, but he knew easily enough what was meant.
Rumors Fenlick unrest high, king seeks Mirish and Fenlick loyalty.
A chill crawled over his skin. What was this object, and what secrets did it hold?
He drew back as the ever-brightening mist began to coalesce into lines of shining white. Letters. The mist was forming letters.
As the ethereal mist dissipated, revealing newly-formed, black letters beneath, Thurie read the new message and frowned. He didn’t understand, and this was not the time to sit here and play detective. But even though the magical glow had now gone, he found it hard to tear himself away from the slab. There were so many secrets there waiting to be unearthed—how could he just leave it here?
So with a quick prayer and a gingerly touch, Thurie picked up the wooden slab. Nothing happened—no clap of thunder from above, no whisper in his head from an invading spirit. He stared at the slab for a moment longer before tipping it into his pocket and turning to face the door.
“Where’d he go?” Natlin muttered under her breath. Her sister had stayed relatively calm up until this point, but Tia could hear the rising panic in her voice.
She didn’t know how long they had been wandering the servants’ hallways, but it had been enough time for her to grasp that they were utterly and completely lost. It was hard to tell with the hood hanging low over her face, but she got the sense they were going in circles.
She heard a male servant’s polite ahem from just ahead of them, followed by a cough as he drew closer and smelled her horrid dress.
“Excuse me, but are you lost? I saw you go down this hallway a few minutes ago…”
“Oh, thank you!” Natlin said. “You know, I’m normally good at getting my bearings, but I’m just a bit flustered… Lady Mae is going to take a carriage to her estate tonight, and she’s sick, and I just want to get her comfortably settled in the carriage…”
Natlin’s voice was a bit too high; Tia could hear that she was acting. The real question was whether the servant would notice.
“Let me lead you to the carriage house, then,” he said. To Tia’s ears, the servant sounded convinced. The tension in her shoulders slowly melted away.
As the servant took the lead, Tia shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “What about Thurie?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“We looked for him, and we can’t find him,” Natlin replied quietly. “We’re lost. We’re on the run. People are noticing us wandering around. I think… I think we’ve done the best we can.”
She had a point. In any case, they couldn’t beg off following the servant now without raising even more suspicion.
The servant opened a door and ushered them through into a large, lavishly decorated sitting room, complete with a fire crackling in the fireplace. The thick carpet muffled any sound of the wheeled chair’s treads. An open door opposite them offered a glimpse of another room beyond, also furnished in sumptuous, royal style.
“What’s this?” Natlin said. “Don’t we need to go outside?”
“As Lady Mae is in such a poor state,” the servant said, “I thought it might be more comfortable for her to wait here. I’ll go call for a carriage. She can exit through the blue room so she doesn’t have to spend much time in the cold. I’ll let you know when the carriage arrives.”
“How thoughtful of you,” Natlin said smoothly. “The weather is awfully hard on Her Ladyship’s health.”
He bowed and exited.
With the servant gone, Tia adjusted the hood of her cloak so she could see properly. She took a long inhale, letting the warmth soak back into her. Escape felt possible, suddenly, though it pained her knowing that that escape wouldn’t include Thurie.
“It’s lucky we encountered that servant,” Natlin said in a low voice. “I don’t think we could have kept searching for him much longer.”
“You’re right,” Tia said distractedly. The warmth of the sitting room was dulling her adrenaline, making her sluggish.
She shook her head, trying to snap out of it. “Do you mind looking around a bit?” she asked, inclining her head toward the open door. It was a fool’s hope; since they hadn’t been able to find Thurie in the servants’ passages, maybe that was because he wasn’t there at all.
Natlin obliged her, pushing the wheeled chair into the next room. This room, too, was a lounge, full of plush sofas and a harpsichord. Another open doorway gave them a tantalizing view of other elegant rooms; it seemed they had traded the complicated web of servants’ passages for another maze. Moving further into the room, her sister let out a low growl of frustration when she spotted the woman curled up on a couch in the far corner, engrossed in a book.
The woman looked up. She was dressed in fine, pale yellow silk, and her golden hair was pinned in an elegant updo.
“Good evening, ladies,” the woman said, regarding them with sapphire eyes. Her voice was high and curious, her accent cultured. Trying to move as naturally as possible, Tia tipped her head forward, letting the hood fall forward slightly so that it shadowed her face once more. Hopefully, in the dim light of the chamber, the woman would not suspect a thing…
“Good evening, milady,” Natlin replied, curtsying.
At Natlin’s words, the woman set her book aside and sat up straight, her blue eyes gleaming. “Is that Lady Mae I see under that hood?” the woman asked, inclining her head slightly towards Tia. “Why wear such a get-up indoors?”
From within the shadows of the hood, Tia saw the woman’s nose crinkle as she caught a whiff of the dirtied dress. No doubt this woman’s etiquette instructors would have a fit if she let on she’d identified her ladyship first by smell. Much better for the woman to pretend she’d recognized her under the hood.
Playing up her role as dying invalid, Tia groaned out a hello and raised a trembling hand in greeting before letting it fall weakly back into her lap.
“That’s right, milady,” Natlin replied tightly, answering for Tia. Her sister’s thoughts couldn’t be clearer; the longer this conversation continued, the sooner this woman would discover they were not who they said they were. “Her Ladyship has a chill, and we must keep her warm. And we are about to take a carriage to her estate as well, so she’s dressed for the journey.”
“Oh my,” the woman said, laying a hand on her chest. She rose off the sofa in a graceful, fluid motion and moved toward the window on the opposite wall, drawing back the curtain. Snowflakes were still falling in droves outside. “Taking a journey on a night like this? I suppose if she must, she must… but this foul weather won’t help her condition.” The woman let the window hanging fall and glanced behind her at the open doorway, looking a bit at loose ends.
Natlin kept her voice sad and low. “Yes, the weather is unfortunate, but Lady Mae insists on returning to Bebrook before…” She trailed off, her meaning implicit. “I don’t want to keep you any longer from your book, milady. We’ll be on our way to the blue room.”
“I think not.”
“I said no,” the woman repeated. She cast another look behind her and took a tiny step backward, toward the open door. “My husband warned me there were strangers roaming our home tonight. Never did I think—”
“Your husband?” Natlin asked, cutting her off. The woman gulped and kept edging backwards. Her poise had vanished; she looked petrified.
“Yes,” she stammered, “my husband. King Orrus—perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
Queen Lisia. They were speaking to the queen of all Hygot. And Natlin had addressed her as milady…
Natlin and Queen Lisia stared at each other for a long moment, and then the queen bolted from the room, her yellow dress flapping behind her. She called for aid as she fled.
“Guards—intruders this way! To me! To your queen!”
Time slowed as escape plans flicked through Tia’s head, each one more absurd than the last. Her ankle was still aflame after their desperate flight from the throne room, making running away on foot useless. They would certainly be discovered within minutes if they hid. That left…
“Move!” she half-whispered, half-shouted at her sister. Stunned, Natlin remained frozen in place. “We can’t stay here! Find the blue room!”
Natlin sprang into action, pushing the wheeled chair into the next room at as fast a clip as she could manage. Another drawing room, this one lined with cases of exquisite glass figurines. Two more chambers branched off of it, neither of them blue in color. Natlin picked another at random and sprinted onward. She faltered for half a second when they ran headlong into a room full of courtiers watching rapt as a man seated before a piano-forte lowered his fingers to the keys.
Ten bewildered gazes swiveled their way.
“Go!” she cried, not even bothering to maintain their disguise. Over the astonished gasps, she could hear the sound of multiple men shouting behind them. The guards must have found the queen and would be on their way…
Natlin blindly steered them through the sprawling complex of rooms that made up the palace leisure quarters, leaving a host of flabbergasted courtiers in their wake. They were such a bizarre sight that those whom they passed stood rooted to the spot as they ran by, too perplexed to stop them.
Somewhere behind them, Tia could hear the clomping of the guards’ boots and the cries of confused courtiers. Meanwhile, everything around them was decorated in tasteful yellows, pinks, and ivories—no blue in sight.
“Where’ve they gone?!” a male voice shouted from somewhere behind them, too close for comfort.
“Lord Evrit saw them head that way,” someone else replied.
“Spread out,” a third voice called.
“I don’t know where it is!” Natlin whimpered as they left a room with yellow walls. They entered another chamber, this one empty, its walls a rich burgundy. Already Natlin was heading towards the next room when she gasped and jerked the chair to a halt, then wheeled it back into a dark corner. Through the open doorway ahead of them, they had both seen the muscular silhouette of a guard stalk across the room.
Huddled in the shadows, they waited in heart-pounding silence for a few seconds.
“Do you think he’s gone?” Natlin whispered.
Tia was too busy examining the burgundy room to reply. A couch, some chairs… With a muttered prayer, she slipped out of the wheeled chair as quietly as she could, stifling a gasp when sharp needles of pain lanced up her leg, and shrugged off her heavy cloak.
In the guise of a pageboy, Thurie stole through the palace proper, peering around corners to check that the coast was clear of guards. Several times he had to resort to pressing himself into an alcove or scampering beneath furniture.
He could feel the weight of the wooden slab in his pocket, bumping against his hip. As he hid beneath a table, waiting for a guard in the next room to leave, he was struck by a gut-churning thought: what if the silver mist returned and started billowing out of his pocket, giving him away?
He nearly threw the slab away, but the itch to understand what its strange words meant stayed his hand. Even if he hadn’t understood what he’d read, maybe he could if he just gave it more time.
Shouting from afar drew his attention. “The intruders are in the first floor drawing rooms! This way!”
He heard the guard in the next room take off at a run. Crawling out from under the table, he peeked his head out the door and watched the guard’s retreating figure.
It was a perfect opportunity for him to search the palace for a safe exit without fear of being caught. But those girls were down there somewhere, and they had saved him. How could he live with himself if he didn’t go to their aid?
So against every instinct, he sped after the guard, straight towards the commotion.
Tia and Natlin hugged the wall, listening intently for the steps of the prowling guards outside. The thick drawing room carpets that had helped soften the sounds of the chair’s wheels also dampened the guards’ footsteps.
Tia willed herself to breathe; if she grew any more tense, she was confident her pounding heart alone would give them away. The light from the fireplace on the opposite wall did not reach far, allowing them to hide in the shadows.
Still, all it would take for them to be discovered was one guard to walk through the room.
She swallowed as her ears caught the sound of a guard’s padding footfalls outside the door. She counted silently, trying to remember the layout of the yellow room that lay adjacent to where they were now. How much longer until they could make their move?
The guard’s footsteps grew softer. She tensed—
And heard him take off as shouts rose from the distance.
Seconds later she heard what sounded like hundreds of glasses smashing. An image rose to her mind of a room they’d run through in their panic full of glass baubles.
What was going on? There was no time to contemplate; this was the perfect opportunity. She glanced at Natlin and gave her a nervous nod.
“Now,” she breathed.
Her sister grabbed hold of the wheeled chair and shot into the next room. She positioned the chair so it faced away from any entrances and then darted back to the burgundy room.
“Will it make a difference?” Natlin asked as she grabbed hold of Tia’s arm to support her.
“Gods only know,” she grunted as they stumbled out of the burgundy room into yet another sitting room decorated in shades of delicate peach.
“How much leisure space do these gods-damned people need?” Tia growled as she gave the room a once-over.
And spied a bright flash of indigo walls through an open door.
“There!” she barked, then shot a sorry look at Natlin. She hadn’t meant to be so loud.
“I heard something!” said a male voice from what sounded like a few rooms away. Would the wheeled chair do its job and buy them some time?
Natlin fingers dug into her arm as they made their way into the blue room as swiftly and quietly as they could. Despite another crackling fireplace, the room was noticeably colder than the others; a chill draft was creeping into the room from beneath a heavy wooden door in one wall. They’d made it.
A man swore viciously from the direction of the yellow room. A rush of satisfaction raced through Tia. So the wheeled chair had served its purpose after all.
Natlin wrenched open the wooden door, and a wave of frigid air washed over them. Tia held her head high, maintaining perfect posture despite the shooting pains in her leg.
And putting on their best haughty, noble expressions, they stepped over the threshold towards the carriage waiting right outside.