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Tia wasn’t overly superstitious, but as she opened the dresser drawer and saw the neatly folded clothes within, she couldn’t help but think that exchanging a dying woman’s clothes for a dead woman’s clothes wasn’t a good portent of things to come. She couldn’t pretend she wasn’t glad to see the last of Lady Mae’s noxious dress, though.
Both girls emerged from the room a minute later, commoners once more. Dunna’s eyes lingered on their dresses for a moment, and the lines around his eyes deepened.
“Good,” he said after a weighty few seconds of silence. “Time to go.” Natlin made to grasp Tia’s arm again. “Wait,” he cried out. “Allow me—you’ve been through enough. Gods above, you saved my son.” And he bent down, his two arms outstretched so that Tia could climb into them. With her in his secure, steady hold, he carried her down the stairs.
They hailed a carriage as soon as they made their way to the main road, though they had no proper plans on where to go. The anonymity of a carriage was much preferable to risking being spotted on Haplyr’s streets. When the driver asked their destination, Dunna named an inn on the opposite end of the city, giving them time to talk.
Tia and Natlin took turns relating to Dunna the series of events that had led to their escape. When they spoke of Thurie’s distraction in the leisure quarters, he beamed with pride.
“What about you?” Tia asked. “We all assumed the worst.”
Dunna launched into an account of the fight in the throne room, though it sounded like he was downplaying it, either out of humility or a father’s wish not to cause his son any more stress. His ruined wooden hands spoke of a fight more violent than he was letting on.
Natlin gasped when Dunna told them of his escape out the window. It explained the cuts on his face.
“And there are a few deeper cuts on my legs as well,” he said. “I was laying on the bed trying to keep pressure on them when Thurie entered the apartment.”
She eyed his legs. “Are you…?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “My son fixed me up while you two were in the other room.”
“What happened after you jumped through the window?” she asked, trying to get the story back on track.
“There was a snowbank below the window, just enough to cushion the fall. The guards hesitated a few seconds before following me.” He let out a chuckle. “It’s my experience that your average city guard loses his edge once he climbs the ranks into the palace. Their hesitation was my gain; I had a good lead on them.” Thurie hung on his father’s every word, looking positively giddy.
“Your footsteps, though…” Natlin said.
“Yes, that was the next worry. I headed toward the main road leading from the palace to the gates. I figured it would be well-trampled, and from there I could lose them.”
“And so you just walked through the front gate out into the city?” Tia asked, incredulous.
“No, no,” he said. “I feared the king had already sent someone to the main gate to tell them to be on the lookout. What I did see when I made it to the main road was all the people who’d been waiting for an audience with the king, tramping their way through the snow back toward the gate.” His eyes sparkled. “Thurie, I’m sure you’ll recall one of the main stars of that endearing group of people. He was at the back of the crowd, pushing his sorry cart through the snow as fast as it could go.”
Thurie clapped his hands together as he remembered. He drew up his top lip, exposing his front teeth in a ratlike grimace.
“That’s right! Our favorite charlatan, Bogman Everil.”
“B-but—” Tia sputtered. How had the man peddling fake Mirish goods gotten mixed up in all of this?
Dunna saw the two girls’ confused looks and explained how Bogman Everil’s disgruntled client had broken the secretary’s nose.
“If it had been anybody else I would have figured out another way,” Dunna continued. “But selling people false hope is evil in my book, so I waited for him to fall a bit further back from the group and… took care of him.”
“I didn’t kill him!” he assured them. “Just gave him a good knock on the head and took his cart. The guards recognized the cart from earlier in the day and didn’t look any further than that. I walked straight through the gate back into the city.
“And then I went home. I had a hunch, you see, that if Thurie still lived he would come home. He would want to take his mother’s picture with him before leaving for good.” His son nodded vigorously. Indeed, when Tia and Natlin had been changing in the other room, Thurie had prepared a bag to take with them. He’d stowed his mother’s portrait, wrapped in cloth, safely within the bag, along with provisions for a journey and the oilcloth pouch.
As Dunna’s story ended, everyone quieted, and the air in the carriage grew thick. Now that they’d caught up on the events of the last few hours, a more difficult task lay before them: what would they do now?
“A few minutes ago you mentioned leaving for good,” Tia said to Dunna, breaking the silence. “Where will you go?”
Dunna’s face grew heavy. “East to Fenlick is my guess. Rumor lately is those parts are troubled and hold the crown in no high regard. Any king who murders his own subjects to sway public opinion gets no loyalty from me. Yes, Fenlick seems a better place for us, given the circumstances.”
Both girls started. Now it came time to turn the tables and surprise Dunna and Thurie with their fount of information about the situation in the east.
“We can all head back there in the wagon, with Pila and Alan,” Tia said. “It will be cramped, but we’ll make it work.”
“You’re very generous to make that offer,” Dunna said. He looked down, frowning. “Too generous, maybe.”
Tia knew he wasn’t lying. The king would no doubt send messengers to towns outside Haplyr, notifying them to be on the lookout for people matching their description. The four of them traveling together in one group would be conspicuous—and dangerous.
Yet a man with no hands traveling across the realm with his young, mute son stood a good chance of running into trouble. They might be apprehended or robbed on the road…
Natlin shifted in her seat and cleared her throat. “When Tia and I were running out of the throne room, we could have left Thurie hiding behind that plant and walked right out into the courtyard. I reckon we would’ve tried to blend into the group heading back to the front gate.” She looked at Dunna. “But you said it yourself: they were checking people at the gate. Two girls of our description, one with a lame ankle… I doubt we’d have made it through.
“We took the harder path with Thurie, through the palace. There were times when we got separated, sure. But every time things seemed desperate, doing our best to stay together worked out best.” She turned to Tia. “Don’t you remember what you said, just a little while ago? ‘We stick together.’ We already made it out of that nightmare of a palace. I say we go together to Fenlick and see what else the king can throw at us.”
And just like that the air in the compartment cleared, and a decision was made amongst the four of them that felt just as real as any pact sealed in saliva or blood. Natlin was exactly right, Tia realized as Dunna opened the window and called for the driver to change course for the fairgrounds. Escaping from near-certain death had tied them together in a tight knot, and she’d place her trust in that knot, however inscrutable.