It had no face, but It had seen me.
I wanted to run but there was a wall behind me covered in black feathers. Turning, I ran along the wall, even though It could see me. It was getting closer. No matter how hard I ran, I didn’t move faster. My legs slowed to molasses even as my heart thundered in desperation. It was close. I wasn’t going to be fast enough. I scrunched up my eyes. Eloi. I would not be caught. I would escape. It would not end this way. Eloi wouldn’t allow that, would he?
I jolted awake. My fingers clasped the hilts of my daggers and there was lightning in my veins. The dying fire cast a soft orange glow around the King’s bedroom. I was snug beneath the thick covers. Shiharr and Azzad held tight beneath the pillow. Sucking in a deep breath, I willed my heart to slow and my fingers to unwind. There was no blood. There was no monster. I was safe.
Then, I sensed movement. My grip tightened again before Tarr walked across my vision and dropped like a sack of flour onto his couch in front of the fireplace.
I almost drowned in relief. Just Tarr returning at last from his dinner with ministers. I hadn’t seen him since leaving him with Hesperide, and I’d gone to bed shortly after dinner with my brother. Tarr draped his arm over his face, obscuring his silhouette. Not ready to close my eyes again, I pushed back the covers and got to my feet. With a shiver I reached for the robe I’d left by the bed and slipped it on before walking to put another log on the fire.
“You were gone a long time,” I grabbed a blanket from the chair and came to the couch.
“So were you.”
“How as dinner?”
“Scintillating.” His eyes were closed under his arm, and he didn’t move when I spread the blanket over him. He’d changed into his night clothes, but hadn’t buttoned his shirt, put on a robe, or made any other move to stay warm. I could see the goosebumps on his exposed skin and clucked disapprovingly, tugging his shirt closed before tucking the blanket closer. After weeks of close quarters, I had finally stopped blushing because of Tarr’s winks and unbuttoned shirts. I had begun to think that his carelessness of dress and decorum was because he used up all his care dealing with his precarious kingship and had none left for other things. I also rather thought he wouldn’t mind catching his death of cold.
“Have you seen your brother since dinner?” Pushing his legs to one side, I perched on the edge of the couch. Ramrod straight due to my side.
One eye opened a slit, “Yes.”
I was afraid to ask, “He wasn’t…captured…was he?”
“No, he was not.”
Quill had assured us that the rightful king had been given a royal uniform for this precise purpose, and he would be sensible and go by the servant’s passages. But it wasn’t as though the uniform covered his face, and given the way he’d left I wasn’t sure he’d be thinking clearly enough to sneak. Now to the next question I dreaded. “Did he…tell you about the…” I trailed off, unable to find a gentle way to say “murderous evil ritual performed in your mother’s sitting room.”
“He was as angry as I have ever seen him,” Tarr closed his eye again. “Perhaps even more angry than when word came that Narya was marching on Shyr Valla right after signing a peace treaty.” He let out a shuddering breath, and I could smell alcohol. “I’m grateful to you for cleaning it up. I could not bring myself to go back there.”
“You’re—wait …back?” When he didn’t answer, I plucked his sleeve. “Tarr…back?”
“Yes, back,” he moaned.
I feigned a huff in an effort to get him to look at me. “Here and I was worried about telling you what we’d found.”
Grimace twisting his face, he dropped his arm and opened his eyes. “Sorry,” he said dryly.
I studied Tarr for a moment, his blue eyes were fogged with exhaustion and possibly drink. An awful weight slipped around my shoulders. “You were there when she did it. You know who she killed there.”
Nothing sparked in his face. His eyes wandered to the fire, then he sighed. “As soon as the city was secure she gathered prominent nobles, myself, and my mother, to witness her homage to the fiend who granted her power. She made a grand speech, performed a weird ritual….and then she thanked it with the blood of my mother and her servants.”
He shook his head slightly, dropping his limp hand on my knee. “Stop. So you learned my mother was killed in her room instead of the Cathedral Square. It changes nothing.”
I picked up his hand, wanting to impart comfort without being irritating. And also, consumed with curiosity. “Did you see it? The fiend?”
His eyes were still on the fire. “I saw a rip in the air made of darkness,” he whispered. “And I felt darkness. Not darkness like night, or when a fire goes out—but darkness like your worst thought, your worst feeling.” A sigh shuddered out of him, “It’s not one of my fonder memories.”
I opened my mouth to say “I’m sorry,” but stopped myself.
“Trinh takes it all very personally. As if she picked that room just to spite him.” Tarr sounded so tired. “Maybe she did.”
“Doesn’t she think he’s dead?”
“Sure, but,” he twirled his fingers, “Haven’t you ever done something out of spite?”
“You know what I would do out of spite?” he raised his eyes to mine, the fire danced in them, “I would bury her in a casket lined with mirrors. So she would be able to watch herself decay into nothingness.”
I shuddered, “That’s…fair, I suppose. But what if she got out?”
“Heavens, I’d kill her first. I’m spiteful, not stupid.”
A wry smile tipped my lips upward. “Does she hate mirrors very much?”
Tarr scoffed. “No, she adores gazing at her own beauty. I’m told there are mirrors in every room at Hirhel.”
“Have you ever been to Hirhel?”
“No,” Tar shifted deeper into the couch. “She didn’t start taking young royals to Hirhel until after I turned into a drunken embarrassment.” His lips twisted, “By the time she realized that having a fool for an vassal-king wasn’t always to her advantage it was a little late to form me after her own image—so she sent Khattmali. Spies must have told her I like brunettes—which—” he shrugged, “is true.”
I flicked his wrist.
“I’m actually not sure how much longer I can stall on that front—I don’t have a reputation for being restrained. Khattmali is doing everything in her power to be irresistible, it’s very difficult to cross her without showing how very much I despise her.”
“She wants to be queen?”
A dip of his chin. “Mercifully she knows I’m fickle and prone to moods. Analie Meredithe is a welcome distraction,” he draped his arm over his face again. “Except when I’m trying to sleep after a miserable day.”
I sighed and swiveled to face the fireplace. The crackling of the flames was the only other sound as Tarr’s breathing became deep and regular. “I wonder if we’ll have to fight a demon when we fight her.” I said the words aloud, though Tarr seemed asleep. He didn’t answer. “Does it possess her, do you think?” I asked. Still no answer. “Or did she just…convince it to help her? I wonder what she gave it.” A pause. “What does she want, anyway?”
“An empire,” Tarr’s mumble startled me. “and eternal youth. What else?” Leaving his arm across his face he reached his other hand blindly for my head, awkwardly attempting to push me against the back of the couch, “And I want to sleep.”
I batted his hand away, but stopped talking. Wrapping my arms around myself, I watched the fire creeping along the log in little orange curls until my eyes started to get heavy. Then I dragged myself back to the bed and crawled in.