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Thurie crept through the maze of rooms. The place was crawling with guards, and for once he felt glad for his small stature. It made it much easier to hide.
The guards were shouting at the confused courtiers to clear out. Yet many of the courtiers seemed a bit reluctant to leave, hoping they would get a chance to see a fight. As several of the guards angrily herded the courtiers out, he used the confusion to press forward into the newly vacated rooms, searching for the Inkman sisters.
The sound of a guard’s approaching footfalls sent him scrambling behind a love seat. He hid behind it, listening intently.
And then something tightened in his gut. What was he doing hiding? The girls needed his help, and here he was, crouching like a coward behind some furniture.
He was halfway across the room waving at the bewildered guard before his brain fully caught up. His heart threatened to beat straight out of his chest as the guard gave chase and called for his companions.
But Thurie was faster. He sped out of the room into the next, diving underneath one guard’s reaching arm and leaping around another.
What about the other guards farther away, closer to Tia and Natlin? Chaos—what he needed was pure chaos.
On some base instinct, he grabbed a heavy bronze bookend off a shelf as he sprinted through one room into the next. The walls of the room he entered were lined with glass statuettes, all neatly arranged in cases.
He heaved the bookend at the nearest case. The bookend smashed through the front pane of glass and struck the top shelf, which collapsed onto the next with a great, rending crash. Down the shelves went one by one, and a fraction of a second later, all that remained of the statuettes was a cracked, useless heap of glass shards.
There was no time to savor the destruction. He could hear the guards closing in like wolves encircling prey, so, drawing from some secret, deep reserve of energy, he ran faster than ever. He did his best to attract the attention of any stray guards, stringing them behind him like a tail.
And then suddenly it seemed like half the guards had lost interest, peeling away from the others.
“I heard the girls this way!” he heard one shout to another.
He mouthed a silent curse. They still hadn’t managed to escape this wretched maze? He swatted away his own building worry about how he himself was going to get out of here.
He turned a corner and ground his heels into the carpet, already preparing to double back. Three guards were standing not ten paces before him, though their backs were to him. He waited for them to turn and see him… but no, they were preoccupied with something in front of them. They stalked closer to it, swords drawn, and Thurie was once more reminded of pack animals moving in for a kill.
His heart fell as he caught sight of what lay before them—the wheeled chair. He could see the hood of Tia’s cloak peeking over the back, its bejeweled embroidery glinting in the firelight.
Where was Natlin? Had they already killed her?
Time ground to a halt as the guard closest to Tia reached out a hand to spin the chair around. He adjusted his grip on the sword.
Thurie brought his hands up to block his view. He didn’t want to see it…
The guard swore, his curse blue enough to split the air. Thurie lowered his hands, and the scene that met his eyes sent a surge of energy through his body.
Feathers flew through the air. The two girls had stuffed the cloak full of sofa pillows, and Tia was nowhere to be seen.
“FIND THEM!” the guard roared. His comrades turned and locked eyes with Thurie, who’d nearly forgotten that he, too, was still on the run.
But now that he knew Tia and Natlin might still be alive, there was no chance of the guards catching him. He ran back the way he’d come, feeling like his feet had sprouted wings.
Left, right, forward, left again… Though the rooms he was sprinting through had no doubt been painstakingly designed, they all merged into one big blur around him as he ran.
Gods, it was cold in here.
The room Thurie had just entered, decorated all in blue, was much colder than the others. The cold air was a welcome relief to his shaking, sweating body, and he wished he could linger.
A glittering sheen graced the carpet before a closed door.
He blinked, momentarily distracted from whatever was on the floor: a real, closed door! So different from the open layout of these endless sitting rooms. And that shimmer on the floor—snowflakes!
He wanted to whoop for joy. Instead, he opened the door as quietly as he could and slipped outside.
And as he crossed the threshold, he could have sworn he smelled the faintest trace of his mother’s old, favorite perfume in the air.
“Going to Bebrook?” the coachman asked Tia and Natlin as they approached the carriage. His scraggly gray beard was flecked with snowflakes.
“That’s right,” Natlin said.
“Bad time for it!” he hollered down at them, shaking his head. “You’re sure—”
“Yes,” Natlin snapped back, her tone as cold as the snow swirling around them. The coachman harrumphed, but didn’t question them further. They clambered into the carriage, trying not to let their haste show.
As soon as Natlin got the door closed she banged a fist on the ceiling—not the most ladylike behavior, but there was no time to waste. A weight slid off Tia’s shoulders as the coachman cracked his whip and the carriage lurched into motion.
But driving through the snow was slow-going, and the coachman, not wanting one of his horses to lose a shoe, did not press them hard. Both girls stayed glued to the back window, anxious to see the palace grow smaller behind them, but they were moving at what felt like an agonizingly slow pace. Staring back at the door from which they’d exited, Tia kept having terrible, unshakeable premonitions that hundreds of red-clad guards were about to spill through it and give chase.
She groaned when the door opened for real, her breath puffing out in a white, hazy cloud.
“We’re not far enough away,” Natlin said. Her voice was low and hopeless. There was nothing else to say, and so Tia reached for her sister’s hand. The last two days had taught her that the world she was living in was much colder and crueler than she’d ever thought possible, and Tia needed all the warmth she could get.
Yet the person who emerged from the door was not dressed in red, but in green. Her heart soared. Though the carriage had seemed to move at a snail’s crawl a second ago, now Tia suddenly had an awful feeling that the horses were pulling them along too swiftly.
But Thurie would not be deterred by a bit of distance or snow. He flew towards them in great, leaping bounds, and she couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief at his approach. Both sisters leaned forward, their breath fogging the back window, and Natlin’s hand squeezed Tia’s own in a viselike grip.
And as Thurie drew close enough to lock eyes with the both of them, she could only think it the grace of some benevolent being watching from above that the carriage lurched over a bump in the road at the very same moment Thurie leaped towards them, perfectly masking his illicit arrival on the back of the carriage.
He touched a hand to the windowpane, and his lips curved upward in a hint of a smile before he turned to look back at the palace. The door remained closed, and Tia imagined the guards within milling about like ants in a hill, searching for them in vain. She let out a few more breathless laughs, Natlin joining her a second later. To someone paying close attention, their raw mirth, born from shock, might have sounded uncomfortably close to sobbing.
And when Thurie tore his gaze away from the palace and turned back around, that shadow of a smile had vanished.
They passed back into the city without any trouble. The guards at the gate let them out with a casual wave, seemingly too fed up with the terrible weather to be more thorough in their duties.
They waited twenty minutes more before going through with the next part of the plan and asking the driver to stop at an inn. He was only too happy to oblige, muttering under his breath about the idiotic whims of palace nobles.
“For your troubles,” Natlin said, pressing some coins into his palm. He grunted his thanks and stomped off to get a drink, leaving the inn’s stable boy to take care of the horses.
Thurie had jumped off the back of the carriage once they neared the inn and had been biding his time on the street corner. Now that the coachman was gone, he approached them.
“What do we do now?” Natlin asked.
Tia shivered, missing the warmth of Lady Mae’s cloak, foul-smelling though it had been. “We go find Pila and Alan. People we know,” she explained to Thurie. “They can take us to Fenlick.”
His eyes widened.
“Do you have someone here who you can stay with?” she asked. As the words passed her lips, she realized the answer might not make a difference. The boy would have to forever hide himself in Haplyr if he stayed here. The king knew his name, his face, his unique talent… If he wanted to remain in Haplyr, then he would have to disguise himself as a different person entirely.
He shook his head.
“Then would you like to come with us?” Natlin asked him. “Ride with us back to Fenlick. We’ll go by wagon. Fenlick might not be as grand as Haplyr, but it’s a good place all the same.” Her eyes flashed to Tia. “I’m sure our family can help you.”
He pushed a wavy strand of black hair back behind his ear and looked down the road at nothing in particular. Time passed—thirty seconds, a minute. The wind played with a drop of moisture in the corner of the boy’s eye, and the sight of it broke Tia’s heart.
Finally he nodded his head. Yes, he would come with them.
But he held up a finger, his meaning clear. He had a condition to going with them. He beckoned for them to follow him, and then set off down the street without hesitation.
Thurie’s feet knew the way well. Hadn’t he walked these streets so often with his father, heading to this crime scene or that guard station?
He’d thought it over. The image of the gruff yet kind guard captain—Gery—had lingered in his mind when Tia had asked him if there was anyone in Haplyr he could stay with, but he knew it was preposterous. To stay in Haplyr would mean having to change himself, erase himself, and what sort of son would he be if he did that? It would be tantamount to spitting on both his parents’ legacies.
So yes, he would go with them. But he needed to make a stop first.
They were almost there. At the tiny bakery he turned down the alley and stopped once he reached the dust strewn steps on the left. With her injury Tia would find the stairs a near impossibility, and he didn’t want them to come inside anyway. He turned to the two sisters and held up his hands.
“Is this… your home?” Natlin asked him. He nodded, motioned again for them to stay, and began ascending the stairs.
“No, Thurie!” Tia called to him. He didn’t turn back. “Thurie! You… you can’t go in there. Thurie, stop—please! They know who you are. They might be waiting in there!” She kept pleading, and he kept walking, even quickening his steps.
He’d already decided that if he couldn’t take what he needed from the apartment, then there was no use going to Fenlick.
Reaching the top of the stairs, he fished out the key from his pocket, fingers twitching when they brushed against the wooden slab. He’d nearly forgotten about that.
The key clicked in the lock, and he entered the apartment, breathing a sigh of relief. He’d been here only hours ago, but it felt like days. And even though the apartment was cast in murky shadows, he could see that everything was exactly as it should be—good. He’d feared coming back to find the apartment ransacked.
He crossed the room with quick steps to Mona Jore’s shrine and met her gaze reluctantly. He had made a purposeful decision to paint his mother that way, staring straight at the viewer. He’d heard of some people who lost a loved one and eventually could not recall the details of their face. He could imagine nothing more terrible, and so he’d charged himself not just to portray his mother exactly as he remembered her, but also to paint her as if she were alive and present, as if she were about to speak or laugh or smile.
Today was the first day he’d ever dreaded looking at the portrait, because he felt an obligation to tell his mother that her husband had been murdered. He knew it was just a painting, but it only felt right to say something.
Or maybe his mother’s spirit already knew, he thought, trying to comfort himself. Perhaps his parents were together somewhere, reunited.
But he could not speak, so he stood before her and tunneled deep inside himself, trying to think of the right words. She would hear them—he knew it. He bowed his head, and the tears that had threatened time and time again to start and never stop spilled over.
And as he looked down, not able to meet his mother’s gaze, he heard a floorboard creak in the other room. Someone else was in the house.
“We’re going up there,” Tia told her sister. She started moving toward the stairs, but Natlin stayed rooted in place.
“You said it yourself!” her sister replied. “He could be walking straight into a trap and dragging us into it along with him!”
“That’s right,” Tia said. “We stick together, remember?”
So Natlin gripped her arm again, lending support, and slowly but surely they climbed the stairs.
What she saw at the top through the open front door of the apartment nearly sent her tumbling straight down them again.
Thurie ran for the kitchen, grabbing a knife before diving behind the counter. He squatted there in the darkness, clasping the knife in his shaking hands as his pulse pounded like a drumbeat in his ears. The shadows around him seemed to shift and move, a physical, writhing mass of black.
This was to be the end—his last stand, and then his family’s miserable, tragic story would be complete.
And then a familiar voice rang out.
“Thurie, don’t you know me? It’s your da… your da…”
The knife clattered from his sweating hands onto the floor. He rose unsteadily from behind the counter, and there at the other end of the room was his father.
Thurie barreled towards him, nearly knocking Dunna off his feet. He squeezed his father hard about the middle, not believing it was real.
Dunna cradled the back of his son’s head, speaking to him in soft, tender tones.
“It’s all right. We’re fine… We’re free…”
The tramp of labored footsteps on the front stair tore them out of the moment. Tia and Natlin came into view outside the doorway, both red-faced. They stopped dead in their tracks.
“Gods above,” Tia said, recovering first. “You made it. We all made it.”
Thurie caught sight of his father’s wooden hands. They’d been gouged by a sword, so that large swaths of wood showed through the cut leather gloves. His father had used them to fight—used them to win.
A rush of pride surged through him, and he hugged his father again.
“How did—” Natlin began, but Dunna cut her off.
“I’ll explain later. We need to leave. It’s a sure bet that royal guards will show up here soon enough.” He looked at the two girls’ fine clothes and frowned. “You’re conspicuous walking around like that now you’re outside the palace. My wife—” His gruff voice broke, and he murmured something about clothes in the next room.
It would have been a sobering moment under any other circumstances, but nothing could bring Thurie down now. Alive! he sung in his head, over and over again, the thrill generated by the sound of that one repeated word more beautiful than any song, any symphony. Alive, alive, alive!