The cry reverberates along the roofs of our courtyard like ripples from a cast stone, louder through the cracked window we don’t have the money to properly repair, only patch up with wood. It’s a chilling sound — and the three of us sleeping in the attic sit up in wordless unison, like the dead coming awake.
“What is it?” Talini whimpers, her eyes as wide as a spooked hare’s.
It’s impossible to answer her question. The sound cuts off abruptly, and there might be the faint sound of weeping from somewhere nearby, but that could just be my ears playing tricks on me. I’m still not sure I myself might not burst into sobs on the slightest provocation. My nose is stuffed and my eyes feel puffy and scratchy, but I’ll have to hide my grief.
We wash and dress quickly. Dawn is still only the faint suggestion of light on the eastern horizon, but from the increase in movement down in the honeycomb plazas and the sight of guards hurrying to and fro in and among the servants, clutching their muskets in eager fingers, it’s a fair guess we’ll all be summoned soon.
We scurry for the door as soon as the castle’s gong sounds the rare pattern summoning us to the starkly-appointed servants’ hall, but we’re far from the first to arrive at the cloister. It’s just official castle staff here, no sign of the Kheti contingent or anyone attached to our visitors, and the fear in the air is suffocating. Hundreds of people are knotted together in strange groups, launderers and footmen and lady’s maids whispering surreptitiously and avoiding the stern glances of the over-butlers.
“I can’t see anything,” Talini complains, popping up on her toes to try to see over the dense crowd. She’s bolder now that so many of us are together.
“Cooks,” I mutter to Marthe, quiet enough that even Talini doesn’t hear.
The older woman’s head bobs faintly. Even amid the crush of semi-familiar faces, it’s clear there isn’t a single member of the kitchen staff present.
Daschen … oh gods.
My stomach convulses, but the nauseating ice in my veins is quickly scalded away by wrathful fire. If anyone’s so much as laid a finger on him, I’ll strangle them with my bare hands!
Conversation swells ahead of us as a sallow valet puts in his opinion: “Straight from her bed, as I heard it. Gone like a thief packed her off in the night.”
He’s not dead, then — Daschen’s safe, this isn’t about him at all, just some girl. The tension in my body eases slightly, but my guts roil like stormclouds as I vacillate between delight, dread and grief.
Mr. Cade’s study door opens, and silence tumbles forth like an avalanche as the heavyset older man strides forth to address us. There’s someone with him, too — a slight man with pale hair and bead-bright eyes.
I haven’t seen Mr. Soames since he became an official advisor to King Johannes, but even with his expertly tailored garments and the new lines on his face, I’d recognize him anywhere. Does he remember me? Does he even care what his strange obsessions did to Father?
I don’t even realize how much I still loathe the man until his gaze lights on mine for a brief instant before dispassionately continuing across the crowd. Of course he’d forget.
Mr. Cade raises his hand for quiet, even though he’s already got our rapt attention. “Please arrange yourselves by house and station. We’ll speak with you one at a time.”
Then the head butler turns, and vanishes back into his office with Mr. Soames.
Talini’s brow wrinkles. “Is that it?”
“Suppose so,” Marthe says, unflappable to the last. I wonder if deep down she’s in any way as uneasy as Talini and I am about Mr. Cade’s uncharacteristically brief instructions. He’s a kindly man, but given to loquacity more often than not.
The underhall fills with the sound of scuffles and murmured apologies as we arrange ourselves as Mr. Cade has asked. This reorganization takes longer than it should; we’re all bumbling, distracted, and it takes a few seconds to remember which house goes where.
Once everyone’s ordered correctly we sit on the floor and wait as the first servants are taken into Mr. Cade’s office one by one. The over-butlers patrol our huddled ranks, shushing us whenever they catch us whispering.
“Vanishing like demons,” Marthe grunts as yet another person disappears behind the heavy wooden door.
I nod. They must be letting people go out through the secret entrance to prevent us from mixing. Are they trying to isolate those of us who are in the dark, catch our genuine reactions when we hear of whatever’s happened? Maybe catch the culprit, even.
I vainly wonder what Daschen’s doing, if he’s well, if he’s tried to contact me. What will we say to each other? What can even be said? He’s a prince, he has no choice in what’s going to happen — he can’t throw over a princess for a scullery maid, as much as I might wish it. His father’s word is law.
But each new reason is another twist of the dagger that lodged in my heart the moment I saw them smile at each other.
Hours pass away, and the crowd thins. It’s almost amusing to think of all those great lords and ladies being bereft of any sort of staff for all this time — how many of them even know how to fend for themselves? The countess will manage, and Helia can make do, but Gennefra’s moaning will probably be hitting a hysterical peak at any moment. We’ll be worked doubly hard to make up for it tonight.
So much the better for me. It’ll be that much easier to keep my mind off all of — well, everything. Sitting here with nothing to occupy me but my thoughts, unable to express even the slightest strangled emotion is threatening to drive me insane.
I’m desperate to see Daschen, just to confirm with my own eyes that he’s all right ... and mad plans of how to make that happen nibble at my mind like minnows.
I’m summoned first from our house, and a clanking guard escorts me to Mr. Cade’s office door. I expect the man to follow me inside but he only closes me within, and I slit my eyes, hurrying them along as they readjust to the wan light.
Mr. Soames is seated at Mr. Cade’s desk while the head butler stands at the arrow slit window, silhouetted like a careworn gargoyle. It takes me another few seconds to catch sight of the note-taker girl hidden in the corner, just a wisp of a thing with inkstained fingers and a scratching pen.
Mr. Cade gestures to the simple wooden chair before his desk as I curtsey. I sit as he bids. A smallish iron box secured with a puzzle lock rests on his desk amid stacks of paperwork, and Mr. Soames drapes his hand across the box’s dull metal, seeming tired. It’s a deceptively nonchalant gesture from such a precise man, though; something about the curve of his fingers makes me think of a dragon minding a clutch of treasure.
“Could you tell me where you were between nine and twelve o’clock last night?” Mr. Soames asks without preamble.
“In my lady’s apartments, sir,” I lie smoothly.
“And did you leave at any time during those hours, even for a few moments?”
After a moment, I nod. Talini and Marthe will cover for me, and it’s not as though I actually did anything wrong. Other than sneak into the ball, of course ... but that can’t possibly be what this is about.
I pray the others will pretend, as I’m going to, that everything last night went according to our usual manner. Carrying heavy loads is too much for Marthe anymore, and even if someone did see Talini, she and I are easy enough to mistake for each other in darkness. “I took out the trash, Mr. Soames.”
“And when was that?”
“About nine-thirty, sir.”
Mr. Soames abruptly sits forward at my words, his eyes narrowing. “Did you speak to anyone unfamiliar at that time? Anyone at all?”
The hairs on the nape of my neck prickle with warning. They’re looking for an intruder. Mr. Soames’ intensity and panic are a potent combination, and words tumble out of my mouth unchecked: “Th-there was a redheaded girl, sir.”
Mr. Soames’ face stays set, but his fingers tighten on the iron lockbox.
My heart stumbles, nearly sending the breath crashing out of my lungs. Gods, what have I done? All I had to do was keep my mouth shut, and now I’ve fucked up completely.
It was ridiculous to think I wouldn’t get caught, not after everything with Daschen went so horribly wrong, and now Marthe and Talini’s necks are on the block just as much as my own.
Mr. Soames’ voice is cool, betraying nothing. “What did she want?”
“S-She said was looking for the pantry.”
My mind scurries like a terrified mouse as Mr. Soames exchanges a glance with Mr. Cade. The men don’t seem to know about my transgression — or even if they do, it isn’t what they’re after.
The pantry ... and the kitchen staff are all missing for some reason ... is the redheaded girl involved with all this, and did my casual instructions help her along?
I struggle to quell the dry heave that threatens to carry off my body, managing to reduce the convulsion to a mere shiver. Godssakes, what is happening?!
“Why didn’t you mention this to someone immediately?” Mr. Soames demands icily.
“I just assumed she was one of the visitors’ people, sir,” I blurt out quickly; it’s only the truth that can save me now. “It’s not the first time someone’s gone astray like that — and she was wearing a proper uniform and everything—”
Mr. Soames cuts me off with a disgruntled wave, and my pulse steadies somewhat as he slumps back in his chair — as much as I’ve ever seen the man slump. He must be able to tell I’m giving him the truth. About this much, anyway.
It would be improper for me to ask what’s going on, but I nearly have to jam my fingers into my mouth to stop myself. If Mr. Soames and Mr. Cade think I’m in any way involved with something so serious as whatever’s happening, it’ll spell a short drop with a broken neck at the end of it, and probably not just for me.
After everything Marthe and Talini risked for my sake, I have to stay silent, answer only what I know, and that truthfully — or else we’ll all be hanging off the king’s tower.
Mr. Soames continues to watch me, but his gaze is suddenly flighty, and he lowers his voice, strikingly casual now. “How’ve you been getting along since your father’s death, Khthonia? It’s been a few years now.”
So he does remember me. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. “Fine, thank you, sir.”
“Mr. Cade tell me you’re a scullery maid now, for your former—” He checks a paper on the desk. “—stepmother, is it? Do you resent it?”
The second question is slipped in so smoothly that the words themselves almost don’t register — but even before I can answer, Mr. Cade turns away from the window.
“Mr. Soames, if I may?”
Soames jumps a little in surprise at Mr. Cade’s interruption, but grudgingly bobs his head.
“Miss Fern has been an exceptional servant for all the years she’s been under my purview, sir,” Mr. Cade says evenly. “She’s a hard worker, humble, and above all, truly obedient.”
I’m beyond grateful to Mr. Cade for his intervention, but his words still sting. Obedient — is that what I am? I was to Daschen, not that it mattered when it counted most. Other than my brief, aborted foray last night, I’ve been pretending to be a dutiful maid long enough that I seem to have actually become that.
There’s no way Daschen could’ve ended up with someone like me — a servant girl. Not really.
The thought of his face is almost enough to make me break down right here, but Mr. Cade’s words are a lifeline. “If Miss Fern says she wasn’t acquainted with the young lady in question, Mr. Soames, I think we should be inclined to turn our search elsewhere.”
Mr. Soames’ jaw tightens, and I stare at him, stunned, as he glares at Mr. Cade. The head butler’s tone is the perfect blend of confidence and deference, not a challenge to Mr. Soames’ authority but a well-intentioned suggestion — and without a moew specific charge to level at me, it’s going to be very awkward for Mr. Soames to try to keep me here when they’ve so many others still waiting.
No doubt Mr. Cade isn’t covering for me, though — he’s an upstanding man, not one for court intrigues. He must truly believe I wouldn’t lie to him like that.
To him — to Mr. Soames — to Daschen, I’m no one.
Mr. Soames doesn’t say anything, but from the way his agitated gaze flicks down to his papers, I know he’s done with me. For now.
Mr. Cade offers me a grave nod, dismissing me, and I hurry out along the secret passage and through the courtyards back to our apartments. It’s a relief to have escaped Mr. Soames’ clutches, but I gnaw at my fingernails in agitation, thoroughly burned up that I’m no closer to finding out what’s going on than I was before all those hours of waiting.
Marthe and Talini arrive home not long after I do, and from the way they’re both a little rattled I know Mr. Soames gave them a good go of it. They didn’t betray me, though — and since I hadn’t thought to mention the redheaded girl to them, they had nothing to offer him on that front.
The countess presses us for details, but it’s in vain; we only heard vague, conflicting gossip today about a stolen girl. The apartment towers stay closed, the courtyards patrolled by guards. The anonymous men are attentive now, as though they’ve been thoroughly tongue-lashed and then some, and they clutch their weapons with no small measure of authority.
Clouds roll across the late afternoon sky like a quilt, and rain chatters off the metal roofs. This torrential downpour isn’t uncommon for the season, but it’s dreary and unwelcome.
We hurry between the upstairs and downstairs, easing the agitated nerves of our three mistresses. Once they’ve had a good dinner and given us a satisfactory run-around, their ruffled feathers are soothed and they roost.
I don’t know how Daschen could possibly get a message to me under these circumstances, but I stare up at the window to his tower, hoping for some sign. I have to know he’s safe. I need to, even more than my lungs need air.
I’m going to break.
It happens when we’re making a simple stew for our dinner — but I’m not hungry, anyway. Eating at a time like this would just remind me of how awful everything used to taste those first years as a maid, when it felt like all I did was tend the fires.
Marthe and Talini stare at me in alarm with alarm as I grab my hooded jacket. The leather garment might hinder my movement a little, but it’ll keep off the worst of the rain. If he can make it down each night and up again each morning, I can make it up there just this once.
“What are you thinking?” Marthe demands, aghast. The knife in one of her hands dangles perilously over the potato clamped in the other. “You can’t go out at a time like this!”
I can’t keep the desperate quaver from my voice. “Marthe, I have to.”
“But the guards’ll just turn you back at the door,” Talini whimpers, visibly upset already.
“That’s why I’m not going out the usual way,” I tell them with grim cheer, shouldering the kitchen window’s curtain aside. The wooden frame is swollen with moisture, but it squeaks open when I give it a hard shove, and I lean out to look down into the courtyard.
Like all the buildings in Triptyllach Castle, ornamental roofs project from our tower like lopsided petticoats of corrugated metal. They don’t look terribly strong, but the ones on the back of the royal apartments have held Daschen well enough as he makes his way up and down from the stables.
Disadvantaged as I am from never having seen him make this journey, I’m shorter and lighter than him, even if not by much. If they held him, they can hold me.
The rising spires of the castle proper are grouped close enough where — if I’m careful — I should be able to make my way over a few major walls and up to Daschen’s bedroom window. So long as none of the guards get the brilliant idea of staring up into the dark, rainy shadows, this should all go off without a hitch, and I can get back here before anyone’s even aware of my absence.
Marthe’s hand closes on my arm like a fleshy shackle. “Enough of this insanity, girl!”
I glare at her, and she’s angry now, too, but she can’t understand the agony I’m enduring in every moment. It’s like a thousand poisonous spines embedded in my heart, driving deeper with every beat.
Marthe’s been in service her entire life — she doesn’t know what it feels like to love someone this much, to have this sickening dread scalding her from the inside out, demanding just to know for certain whether he’s been injured or worse.
“You’re going to destroy yourself, girl,” Marthe snaps, and there’s a fierce desperation in her eyes that I’ve never seen before, almost as powerful as my own. “He may be the crown prince, but he’s a simpleton. He’s not worth it!”
I rip my arm away and scramble up onto the counter and out onto the sill before she can stop me. “Marthe, I have nothing without him, absolutely nothing. I have to know he’s all right.”
For a moment a pang of regret threatens to overwhelm me as I glance back at them. Marthe looks so frustrated, so hopeless, and Talini’s about to pitch a fit to rival an exhausted child, certain that I’m going to die or get myself caught. But I’m strong, and I’ve envisioned this very journey enough times. I’m sure I won’t fall or draw any undue attention — I wouldn’t risk it otherwise.
“I’ll be back,” I promise them. Then I let myself down onto the roof.
The corrugated metal sways a little under my feet, but it holds. After a few shaky seconds I make my way forward, trying to think of anything but how far it is down to the cobblestoned octagon below.
I have to move stealthily as a stray cat to stay both silent and invisible. My hood is invaluable; even with it I’m effectively blinded by the rain, but at least I don’t have to close my eyes against the cascading water.
The window slams shut behind me, and the lantern light abruptly disappears as Marthe yanks the curtain shut. She’s done me a favor, though; it’s easier to see in the full dark, and I prowl across the roofs, chinning up and rolling as I climb toward the castle’s highest towers, the statue of the Untarnished Empress sinking somewhere behind my back as I rise.
Years of lugging trash and laundry and who knows what all else have made me strong, and now that my motivation is undeniable, I move even faster than I’d dreamed possible.
The ground is no doubt a dizzying blur from here, but I force myself to keep my eyes trained on Daschen’s bedroom window. The glass is before me sooner than I’m expecting — and there he stands, gods be praised, fussing with some trunk at the foot of his bed.
Everything within me rises up in a triumphant victory dance. He’s all right!
I rap softly to draw his attention, and Daschen hurries to the window and tugs it open. I tumble inside, thoroughly drenched, and Daschen embraces me for half a moment before he pulls away and stares at me in shock.
“Khthonia, what are you doing up here? You scared me half to death!”
Emotions held over from last night come flooding up to reclaim me, and I pull back, too. I’m so happy to see him, to know he’s safe, but Daschen’s not mine anymore. He never was.
My heart sinks afresh, and I tremble, near to vomiting with the horror of what I just did. Marthe was right twice over now — I should’ve known better than to come here.
Daschen glances out the window, goggling at the drop. “You didn’t actually climb the roofs, did you?”
I nod, too winded from terror and exertion to speak for a moment. “I figured if you could do it-”
His eyes look like they’re ready to burst from his skull at my words. “By Aerona’s mercy, I was joking about that — there’s a secret passage down, that’s what I took all those times … no matter what they say, I’m not completely daft...”
“Oh,” I manage as he trails off.
I watch him carefully, praying he doesn’t see that I’m dying, that my life is being squeezed out of me with every moment he looks at me with his blue eyes wide with dread. He seems absolutely exhausted with panic, like a cornered animal. Like he wants to be anywhere but here with me.
I’m tired, too — so much so that I can’t stop myself from asking the question I truly need answered: “Daschen, what happened last night?”
His rigid expression crumbles. “I-I thought Father was going to let me choose my own bride, Khthonia. I guess I supposed wrong.”
The word pops out like a hiccup: “Oh.”
Daschen takes my hands in his, his skin burning mine. It must be me — I’m numb, but whether it’s from the biting wind or some other savagery I can’t tell. Daschen’s blue eyes hold the apology he won’t let cross his lips. “I love only you.”
Does he mean it now? Did he ever?
I nod and tug my hands away, releasing him to look down, out the window. Whatever he feels, whatever I feel — it doesn’t matter now. My mind is already whirring with thoughts of how I’m going to get out of here.
On my ascent I hadn’t noticed that the main courtyard was swarming with an entire contingent of soldiers, but now that the rain has let up a little, they’re terrifyingly distinct. As I’ll be to them.
My fingers are suddenly scalding again as Daschen reclaims my hands. “Khthonia, I need you to understand how much I care for you. Especially now.”
He pulls me to him, and he’s trembling, his heart racing at an unsteady gallop. I try to claw my way free of his chest, but he’s holding me too tightly. “What’s going on? Why-”
Muffled footsteps sound near the door, growing louder, and Daschen shoves me toward the canopied bed. “Under! Quick!”
I roll beneath the edge of the ornately embroidered bed skirt just in time. A moment later an efficient knock comes at the door, and Daschen opens it to admit a pair of clanking boots that I know must belong to an elite guard. There’s another pair of feet beside them, too — the polished leather boots of a court gentlemen.
I have to bite my sleeve to stifle a gasp when the man wearing the leather boots speaks. Practically no sight of him for eight years, yet today of all days our paths have crossed twice. May the Untarnished Empress give me strength!
“The evidence carriage is about to depart, Your Grace,” Mr. Soames tells Daschen. “And here’s what you requested — though why you chose this particular-”
“I’ve my reasons, Soames,” Daschen tells the slight man, and his imperious tone is enough to raise my confused spirits. “When will … you know, all that be ready for me to look at?”
Mr. Soames’ conciliatory voice scrapes against my ears like fork tines crawling against porcelain. “The law scholars should complete the initial examination within a few hours, Your Grace. We’ll travel to Riverfall ourselves in a few days, once they’ve had a chance to complete their preliminary analysis.”
Soames and the elite guard begin to retreat, but my breath hitches again as Soames stops. “Your Highness, if I may … you’re drenched.”
I look down at my clothes, horrified to remember that I’m still soaking wet, and a whistling breeze cuts through the silence, betraying that the dratted window’s still open. Shit!
Daschen’s words spill out too quickly. “Oh, you know, just taking in the night air.”
“You don’t feel it’s unwise to be near open windows after the … ah … events of last night?” Mr. Soames asks, his voice a solicitous purr.
“Oh.” I can practically hear Daschen stumbling over his own snarled logic. “No, I suppose that wasn’t such a brilliant idea, was it?”
“I’ll have someone sent up to secure them for you,” Soames says silkily. Then he and the elite guard are gone again in the soft thud of the shutting door.
I roll out from under the bed in time to see Daschen lower a slim, cloth-wrapped package into the open trunk. The rectangular chest is just one of several such vessels lying about the room, I note as I look around — and they’re all chaotically jumbled with stuff.
He’s packing for a journey. A long one, if he’s taking both his winter and summer furs. I feel like I’m going to be ill.
“Where are you going?”
“Embla’s been kidnapped.” Daschen leans on the trunk, hanging his head as though the words exhaust him. The familiar way he says her name makes me sick, but I swallow hard and force myself to listen, as I would to the Countess. “They’ve been trying to keep the news quiet, but that won’t last much longer. Until I’m already underway, with any luck.”
For a few brief moments my spirits lift with hope — but I can’t profit from someone else’s pain, not even that fragile, golden princess. Not even though it would mean everything, absolutely everything to me if she never came back here.
“Why you? Why not send the captain of your father’s guard — or her father’s, even?” Fury curdles in my veins, and my head pounds with each violent beat of my heart. “Why don’t they send the whole godsdamn Kheti army?”
I flinch as his eyes hit me, and again at the fear in his quiet voice. “Why do you think?”
Because he’s her champion, of course. Her betrothed.
The confirmation in his gaze is unbearable. I have to focus on the facts, the only things that are solid as my entire world reels. Mr. Soames told Daschen something about evidence — and now I understand the significance of that iron lockbox, and the way his fingers coiled over it like vines.
Even now that box is probably being loaded into the armored carriage that I saw in the main courtyard, bound for the Riverfall Law Library so the scholars can decipher whatever clue’s been left by Princess Embla’s kidnappers.
It can’t be any mere ransom. Why else wouldn’t a simple note have sufficed? Or is it in another language, maybe some barbarian tongue? It’s been hundreds of years since the savage tribes living beyond our borders made a true assault on the four kingdoms — and have they somehow slipped past the gatehouses to do it?
Daschen probably hasn’t given much thought to these kinds of matters; he’s not ready for this, not on his own. His father will provide him the keenest advisors, but no one knows Daschen as well as I do, or will dare admit he’s not cut out for this. And no one else has such powerful reasons for wanting to keep him safe.
The answer is absurdly simple: “Take me with you.”
Daschen snorts humorlessly as he fusses with the trunk. “Be serious. Think of the scandal that’d cause.”
“I can help you tracl her.” I hurry to his side. “Damn the servants and damn the gossip — Daschen, you need me. I can protect you.”
“You’re not your father, Khthonia,” Daschen retorts. “You haven’t been out of the castle in years — and anyway, you’re a girl.”
“A woman,” I correct, remembering all the things that’ve passed between us in the stables.
“All the same. Besides, I’m bringing a token of you with me.” Daschen reaches into the trunk and flips open the cloth package, and my skin seizes into goosebumps as I find myself staring at the engraved shamshir.
My heart thuds violently as I stare at the sword. It looks so wrong in his hands that a voiceless scream fills my mind like a tempest.
He’ll bring my sword but not me?
“To remind me of my first victory,” Daschen proclaims, a bit shakily, as though that’s somehow meant to impress me.
I can’t correct him now, not like this — but it’s just another reason he can’t go. I’ve seen him practicing, and he’s no more skilled than he was a decade ago. Fighting isn’t Daschen’s strong suit, it never has been … and why should it be? Other than a few skirmishes between Khet and Samunder over the decades, there’s been peace in Char for centuries. The guardhouses take care of the rest.
“There must be someone else,” I mutter. “Someone who’s experienced, who does this-”
“Does what, rescues princesses? That’d be princes, I believe.”
Daschen paces away, but I’m stuck standing beside his trunk as though locked in ice, staring down at the shamshir as his desperate, terrified laughter assails my ears.
“Believe me, Khthonia, I wish there was someone else to do this for me. Do you really think I want to go traipsing all over creation for some girl I’ve only just met?”
Daschen’s beside me in the next instant and his hands are on my waist, turning me to face him. He’s so handsome, from those clear, azure eyes to his full lips and smooth, soft skin — how can I bear to let him go?
It’s absolutely, gut-wrenchingly unfair. It’s abominable, a crime, a sin. What if something were to happen to him?
And it will. I know it will, he’s not ready for this.
“I have to do this,” he tells me, and grief reverberates through my entire being at his words. “Father says so, and I can’t disobey him. You know that.”
Something cold chills my clenched fingers from within, and I reel a pace backward as Daschen staggers and slumps against me, his eyes wide with shock.
A bead of red struggles down his temple and drips onto my cheek as I catch him — and the corresponding if scant swipe of blood on the sword hilt in my hand is more damning than any death sentence.
I bite my lip, stifling my own horrified shriek as Daschen’s eyes roll back into his head and he collapses. He’s heavy, but I manage to let him down slowly, and scramble to look at his skull.
What the fuck have I done?
It’s only a glancing injury; one of the decorative bits on the hilt must’ve nicked his scalp as I hit him over the head. He’s still muttering and twitching, though, and not feebly, either — he’ll be fully coherent again soon.
I rock to and fro on my knees, trying to think through the howling in my head. I didn’t even know I was going to hit him until it was all over. I just knew I needed to stop him — and then the sword was there in my hand. Father showed me how to strike someone like that when I was first learning, in case I ever needed to defend myself ... and Daschen’s words were so terrifying, so monstrous...
I can’t believe what instinct’s just driven me to do, but it’s over with now. I can’t change it. I have to think about what I’m going to do next. Hopefully King Johannes and his advisors will be wise enough to keep Daschen home and in bed for a few days; head injuries aren’t anything to be trifled with, and while I’ve only halfway stunned him, they can’t think of sending him anywhere this condition. I’ve bought both of us some time.
I have to rescue Princess Embla.
Even as this new, even madder idea occurs to me, it’s a foregone conclusion. There’s a path to Riverfall in the forest, off the main road where the guards won’t go for fear of losing their way. We’ve all heard that smugglers use it, and there’s plenty of contraband alcohol and rudus weed running around inside the castle that attest to their presence. After traversing the path, I’ll have to head to the law library to see what the princess’s kidnappers might’ve left behind that warranted the rigor of an armored transport and decoding.
I’m clever enough, I’m sure I can figure out what it means — or find someone smarter than me who’ll do the same thing for a price. Whatever that price is, I’ll pay it.
There’s nothing in the world for me now but this. I can’t go back to the Countess Myre’s apartments, back to the endless chores and a lifetime of servitude — and maybe this way, I really can save Daschen. Not from Princess Embla, perhaps, but from whatever perils might lurk along the way.
Even if he recovers quickly and follows hard on my heels, so long as I can use my humble, meaningless life to help sweep some of the danger out of his way, it’ll be worthwhile.
I’ve never felt capable in my life, not since I was a foolish child dreaming of this very sort of thing. Everything has prepared me for this moment, and now it’s here before me. If nothing else, I have the determination.
I can do this. I can save him by saving her first.
I root through Daschen’s things until I find a shoulder harness that fits the shamshir’s scabbard, and sling the sword onto my back so that I’ll be able to run unhindered.
I kiss Daschen’s forehead, and he giggles, feebly trying to respond. He’s only loopy now, and coming up fast.
“Khthonia, what are you doing with my sword?” he titters dazedly.
“I love you,” I tell him with a final look at his face, desperately trying to memorize every curve, every mark. After I’ve lingered as long as I dare, I make my way to the window and slip back out into the drizzling night.
There’s no time to go back and tell Marthe and Talini where I’m going, or even to pack any supplies. The person Mr. Soames is sending to close the window will doubtless arrive soon, and if I’m not out of the palace by the time Daschen’s discovered, I’m sunk.
Striking a royal personage is punishable by death. May Aerona forgive me for my transgressions.
The palace complex is arranged in a vague oval, the largest walls radiating out from this central tower like the spokes of an enormous wagon wheel, transversing the octagonal plazas and the palace towers. They’re tall as trees and barely wider than my feet, but flat-topped — and though they make for a treacherous path, it’s the only one open to me.
I drop down onto the spoke that leads toward the empress’s statue and a dense stand of forest beyond where the smugglers’ trail supposedly lies, and creep along through the gloom.
I’m expecting trouble in every terrified moment, but the rain is still loud enough to mask my movements along the slick, narrow stone. The guards below are preoccupied with watching the armored carriage’s clattering departure, and the few tasked with minding the parapet are too distracted by the carriage’s commotion to notice me slip across the stone walkway.
Faster than I can blink I’m running over the Untarnished Empress’s graven shoulder, down her arm and launching myself into the trees — and then I’m clinging to a branch high in the air, rough bark scraping my cheek as I realize I’m too conspicuous in my maid’s uniform and there’s absolutely no turning back.
I scramble down to the ground and start to run.
The castle is a vague blur of lanterns and torches through the trunks behind me when the alarm gong booms.
That’s it, then — they’ve found Daschen. I’m out of time.
The hoofbeats of the mounted soldiers fill the forest, and I scramble forward, slipping through the mud like an anguished newt. I haven’t been able to find any semblance of a trail; it’s dark, unfamiliar territory, and the still-sheeting rain has long since washed away any evidence of recent passage.
Though it's been years since I walked on anything but cobblestones or wooden floors, I shove my way through thorns and brambles, desperately trying to blunder my way away from the castle. I can retrace my steps tomorrow if I have to, or even risk skirting the main road — but if they find me now, tomorrow is an unhappy prospect.
If there even is a tomorrow for me.
Ferns swipe at my body, leaving icy trails on my exposed skin. I hadn’t given my thin slippers a thought, not even when climbing all those corrugated roofs, but now my feet are beyond numb and the jarring impact of each knife-edged rock vibrates up through my knees and hips.
Sweat erodes a searing trail along my spine, and I flee as much from that sensation as from fear of the horses’ hot breath on the nape of my neck. At some point I realize the sounds of pursuit have faded, but I’m too far gone to do anything but stumble heedlessly onward, mindlessly unspooling like one of Father’s fighting dummies.
I’m not even aware of the steep drop-off lurking beside me until the palm-sized stone rolls out from beneath my foot, and then I’m sliding away into a chaos of frost-rimed roots and slick boulders. The ravine seems to plunge on forever, and I skid downward at a sickening pace, unable to find any solid purchase to slow myself.
I splash down into the icy ditch at the bottom of the mud-streaked embankment, and come up coughing and truly alert for what must be the first time in several hours. I have absolutely no idea where I am, and there’s no sign of Triptyllach Castle on the pine-thickened horizon. There’s only this endless wood and the bluish light emanating from above now that the rain has stopped.
When did that happen?
Two pale trees loom ahead of me, almost perfectly symmetrical, with strangely thick roots and trunks that stretch out of my immediate vision. For a moment I’m deliriously amused … and then I realize what I’m staring at is a pair of bare feet.
I jerk backward, gasping as I douse myself with frigid muck yet again. An ethereal girl is standing at the edge of the ditch gazing down at me, her skin almost glowing in the wan moonlight. Flyaways from her braided pigtails halo her head, and between her bare feet and shift dress she seems curiously impervious to the bone-chilling cold.
I don’t even know how to react, so I stay cowering, panting, waiting for her to make a move.
The waif leans forward and peers at me, cooing like a keening dove. She’s not going to hurt me, surely, she’s too slight — maybe she’s a gypsun’s child or a smuggler’s bairn. She can’t be from far away if she’s roaming around dressed like this.
The girl extends her hand and proves herself decently strong as she tugs me out of the ditch. She’s a full head shorter than I am, but she could be about fourteen, maybe older if she’s as malnourished as her taut, translucent skin evinces.
She leads me forward, and I stumble along the uneven ground, desperately trying to cling to consciousness despite the drowsiness that enfolds me like the whispering cobwebs.
I resurface to the world as the rain picks up again, the tang of fire filling my nostrils as the blonde nymph leads me onward. The blue-grey haze of woodsmoke hangs low in the forest, radiant in the grey dawn that bleeds through the topmost layers of pine canopy.
A ramshackle cabin nestles amid a stand of trees in a sunken glen ahead of us, and from its tattered state it’s a fair guess the girl is an orphan. Part of the house is charred, as though from some long-ago fire — perhaps what killed her parents, or whatever family that lived here.
“Poor thing,” I murmur. The waif beams at me, chattering in some gibberish tongue as she cheerily swings my hand in hers. She must be happy to have some company for a change, though right now I’m a poor excuse for a conversationalist.
We clatter up the rickety steps and into the house’s gloom. A fat heap of embers glows a hearty welcome from the fireplace; the girl nudges me toward the floor before it, then closes the front door and adds a few logs in a clever configuration.
The warmth is almost painful, and after a few moments I think to check my feet as they begin to thaw. The right one is okay, but there’s blood mixed in with the mud on my left instep, and it's throbbing faintly. Probably just a scratch … I was lucky.
I don’t have the energy to examine the injury any closer, not right now, so I prop myself against the far edge of the fireplace, comforted by the warmth radiating from the smooth, mortared stones.
The girl gets the fire roaring and then moves away into the gloom at the fringes of the cabin. The competing light through the dingy windows makes the shadows seem darker rather than forcing them to flee, and it’s almost impossible to see what she’s rummaging for over in the darkness.
The wooden planks behind me groan. I’m almost too tired to even turn my head — but then I hear the growl, and turning is instinctive.
A behemoth of a man looms over me, a solid wall of bone and fat and tattooed muscles. An infant’s scraggly mewl rises from a far room behind him, and the girl exclaims in glee as she finds what she’s looking for in a drawer. Only now do I see the strange bones littered the cabin, entirely the wrong shape to be deer or elk or cow.
Metal flashes in the dim air. Then the knife is in the man’s hand and there’s nowhere for me to run.