“What did she do to him?” I hissed.
Bel didn’t answer.
“Good evening, lords, ladies, and honored guests,” the Queen’s voice filled the room, she was standing in front of her throne now, her gown pooled at her feet. “I would like to say that I’m pleased to honor you with my presence at the Midwinter Festival. But I do not like to lie to my subjects.” Her voice was resonant, but sweet, giving unsettling dissonance to her words, “I’m here because of the reprehensible behavior of some of your citizens, killing my soldiers and impeding my justice—and the incompetence of your king in rooting out those who commit such senseless crimes against us.” The faintest edge crept into her voice, and she looked at Tarr.
Tarr looked back at her, rolling his head on his neck indolently. He didn’t look the least bit afraid of her, despite the blood on his lip.
“It’s partly my fault,” she continued, her voice silky again, “I gave you this king, and I did not train him as I should have. But,” she lifted her hand to beckon to Tarr, he stepped up to her side, “Your King has been productive in other ways. And I shall make it up to you.” She raised her other hand and it took a heartbeat to see that the thing flashing in the light was a knife.
Time stretched thin as she plunged the blade into Tarr’s chest. The air swept from my lungs. Swept from the room.
Color drained from Tarr’s face and spread across the front of his shirt. Crimson. Bright against his white shirt. He looked down, surprised, as his legs buckled beneath him and he slumped to his knees.
“Tarr Kegan,” the Queen was still speaking, “your service is ended. Your insolence is ended. It is time for one of your many heirs to take your place. I will raise them as my own, as I should have raised you. You should be pleased that your bloodline is permitted to continue.”
Tarr’s eyes lifted from the hilt sticking out of his chest and roamed the crowd until they found mine.
I saw his order plainly, but I couldn’t move. My mouth opened as I choked on his blood as if it were my own. I will. I willed him to understand. I will save Naran.
A blade flashed through the air and struck the Nether Queen as she stood over Tarr. She roared in pain, rearing away from the King, the knife protruding from her shoulder.
Quill was running from the direction of the entrance. The crowd recoiled from his passage, another knife was already in hand, his sword in the other. The Queen’s guards charged. Half converged around the Queen, pulling her back the way they’d entered, the rest ran to meet Quill.
Time thinned again, and then steel shattered the silence as the Captain of the King’s Guard carved a blue gore into the tide of soldiers. I stared, trying to make sense of the madness: At the perimeter, blue and black uniforms tore into one another. The crowd of revelers began to churn in a panicked effort to flee. Namal was running for the dais, and I thought I recognized Trinh doing the same. Some nobles were also attacking the Queen’s guards. Trinh’s knights, perhaps.
I became aware of Bel trying to drag me away with the rest of the people, and I turned on him. “You knew!” I snarled.
Bel stopped, taken aback by my anger.
“You knew she would kill him!” I was yelling now. Sweet Analie long gone.
“I tried to keep you away!” he snapped in frustration, “I didn’t want you to have to see it.”
“You should have stopped it!” I had never been this angry.
Still holding my arm, Bel raised his other hand placatingly, though his face showed he was starting to get angry himself. “Analie, listen to me—”
“Let go of me, traitor,” I rotated my arm and wrenched it out of his grasp. Bel stared, stunned, as I drew Shiharr and Azzad from my back, and spat, “I am Zare Caspian of Galhara,” and turning away I ran for Quill.
Quill was surrounded by a dark swarm of soldiers, more than should have been in the room. I came at their backs, dropping three before they knew I was there. Someone grabbed my shoulder, I spun like lightning, whipping my arm under the soldier’s elbow and breaking it in one fluid motion. He cried out and I dropped his arm and moved on. Another tried to grab my neck, I ducked and flipped him over my head, ripping a swath in my skirts. The air whooshed out of his lungs and never returned as Shiharr sank into his neck. I yanked the knife out and kept going. The dress was like camouflage, they rarely saw me until I was upon them.
And I was nearly to Quill’s side.
I glanced to the dais. Tarr was all alone, slumped in front of the throne. For a heartbeat, our eyes locked again. The young King dipped his chin, his lips tipped up even as life pooled out of him. His expression was a benediction, shining with pride and…hope…Not for himself, but for us.
I gasped for breath, as if I could breathe for him. But the light in his eyes guttered.
I tucked my tears deep and shanked a soldier who was going for Quill’s back.
Then I made it to Quill. I sheathed Azzad, and reached for him, “Quill!”
He didn’t respond, but he didn’t kill me either. He plunged his sword into a soldier.
“Naran and Hess!”
Quill spared me a glance, then. He knew. His eyes were hard, his soul locked behind yards of stone, but I saw it anyway. I put a hand onto his back, moving with him as he spun and ducked. I pressed him toward the balcony, using Shiharr to block blows as we moved. Kicking out knees and stomping on feet that came too close to us.
I was vaguely aware of Trinh, Namal and the others, gaining the dais—but the Queen was already gone. They picked up Tarr’s body and, like us, started fighting for the balcony.
There shouldn’t be this many of the Queen’s guard here. Had they all been hidden in the ballroom?
Quill’s sword caught in someone’s armor—he abandoned it—and in that moment, I grabbed him around the waist and lunged at the balcony.
An arrow pierced the throat of the soldier who followed us into the night, and we leapt over the railing and into the icy river below.