The next part was my idea. Trinh’s tunnel connected us to the warren of narrow passages the guard and the servants used to move about the palace, and there we divided. Rakov and Trinh went ahead to scout Naran and Hess’s quarters while the rest of us went to get Hew, Naran’s favorite hound, from the kennels. The palace was unnaturally quiet, as if all the inhabitants had disappeared into thin air. They had probably all done their very best to do just that rather than risk becoming a target of the Queen’s wrath. We didn’t pass close to anyone until we were entering the servant’s quarters with Hew in tow. A few men in servant’s gray, who had clearly been on their way somewhere, stopped moving when they saw Ayglos—who was walking in front wearing the black uniform of the Queen’s guard. They shrank against the wall, eyes averted, until we passed by in a swirl of dark cloaks and silence.
When we reached Hesperides’ door, Quill pushed it open without knocking. Rakov and Trinh were waiting inside, weapons drawn.
Putting away his sword, Trinh stepped forward and crouched in front of Hew. The hound, being only half bloodhound, was enormous and stood nose to nose with the crouching King. In the weeks I’d known Hew he’d already started to fit his long limbs far better than he had when we’d met. He’d come with me eagerly when I’d woken half the kennel to get him. Though I’d never taken him anywhere he followed with the trustful enthusiasm which made dogs so disarming. Sensing our urgency, he hadn’t made a sound for the entire trip, and had stayed so close to me that the leash seemed entirely unnecessary. It would be different once he was hunting.
Trinh held a bit of cloth out to the hound and Hew reached for it eagerly. My heart seized as I realized that it was a shirt. Was Naran really so small?
Trinh said something in a language I didn’t recognize but Hew did. The hound immediately dropped his nose to the ground and headed out the door. I had to trot to keep up and could hear the others fall in behind us.
Hew’s nails clicked on the polished wood floors, and I was grateful he didn’t bay as he darted down the hallways with unwavering fervor. We quickly left the servants quarters and entered the main palace, passing anti-chambers and ministerial rooms until we came face to face with a wall of black clad guards.
Hew would have plowed through the wall without stopping, but I checked him. Without missing a beat Ayglos strode past me and snarled at the guards, “Let us through, the hound is on a scent.”
“Who are you?” demanded one of the guards.
“We are the Queen’s Huntsmen,” replied Ayglos, stepping closer to the line of guards. “We are hunting an intruder.”
“No one is to be admitted to this wing by order of the Queen,” replied the guard.
“Fools, someone is already inside.”
“We have heard nothing.”
“Unsurprising,” snorted Ayglos.
The guard bristled.
We didn’t have time for this. In two strides I was holding a knife against the guard’s throat and stillness fell over the others. “Don’t risk the wrath of the Queen,” I purred.
He glared at me. “You Huntsmen,” he spat, “So high and mighty. You think you’re the only ones worthy to serve the Queen.”
So, there were Huntsmen. I thought Ayglos had been making things up.
The man continued, “No one has entered this wing, and even if they had, half the army is behind us. We can protect the Queen just as well as you.”
He wasn’t going to let us through. As tremulous and desperate as this plan was, it was our only plan. If we didn’t get Naran and Hesperide out tonight, there might not be another chance. We were too few, and she had too many and too much. For a single breath I considered the blade against the guard’s skin and thought of the blade in Tarr. My voice was thick as I asked, “Can you protect her from ghosts?” I stepped back and swung my free hand flat against his temple; senseless, he fell back into the other guards.
Startled cries and the sing of weapons filled the hallway. Hew backed up a step, his tail tucked. I dropped the leash to reach for Azzad.
A guard swung his sword at my head and I dodged, my knife sinking into him and my other hand clubbing his temple with Azzad. I was aware of the men tearing into the other guards without a word. The fight was over in moments, and we were five cloaked figures standing over a pile of black uniformed bodies.
“I guess it’s time to adjust the plan,” commented Ayglos, stooping to clean his knives.
“Well, they’ll know something is up,” replied Trinh drily.
“Do we leave them here?” I asked.
“Hide half of them,” said Quill. He opened a nearby door, revealing an empty anti-room.
The bodies were heavy and awkward, but we moved six bodies out of the hallway and scattered the others a little to obscure the streaks on the floor. Some were just unconscious, we tried to make sure these were in the room. Anything to add confusion and delay to any who hunted for us. Perhaps they would think they had traitors among them. It was gruesome work and I was as glad to leave as Hew, though perhaps for different reasons. Trinh offered the hound the shirt again, in case he’d forgotten because of the fight, and Hew barely looked at it before returning to the trail only he could find.
Ayglos kept pace with me, the other three fell in behind us like geese.
“How did you know she has Huntsmen?” I whispered.
My brother glanced at me, “They are why I was late getting back. They sensed me one night when I got close to the Queen’s camp. I spent the rest of the trip trying to stay ahead of them without running into the armies or patrols.”
“They never used hounds—at least that I saw—but they always seemed to find me. Or, to get close,” replied Ayglos, keeping his voice low. “I gathered from listening in at campfires that they are called Huntsmen, but not for hunting game. They hunt people, mostly. Special order of the Queen, and some serve as her personal guard. They are disliked and feared by the army.”
I frowned. “They sound more like…assassins?” Hew charged brazenly around a corner. When an empty hallway opened before us I asked, “How did you elude them?”
“I…” Ayglos hesitated, “…don’t…know…”
“You don’t know?” I was incredulous.
“There is a lot going on here that doesn’t make sense,” added Ayglos hurriedly, as if getting words out before he could change his mind, “I am good at remaining unseen and leaving no trail, but they would find me anyway—it was either the worst luck or magic because they nearly caught me dozens of times but…” he swallowed, “an apparition of a woman with golden-hair always warned me. I know it sounds crazy, but she stayed with me that whole scouting trip. I couldn’t always see her, but I know she was there and she saved my life on several occasions.”
My steps faltered. “You—” I stammered, “You saw her?”
Ayglos shot me a startled look: As if that had very much not been the response he’d expected. “You saw her?” he demanded.
“No,” I shook my head, “Not exactly…She slapped me—and she yelled at me—to wake me up when I was drugged—did you hear about that?”
“You were drugged?” asked Ayglos, then he shook his head, dismissing his own question. “We’ve hardly been in close conference these months. But I am comforted that I’m not alone in encountering her.”
“Assuming it’s the same spirit,” I replied. My mind was sprinting from one thought to the next, barely holding an idea long enough to draw conclusions I was so excited. Golden hair, though, ruled out Nelia. “Did you talk to her?”
Hew bayed, causing both of us to jump in a manner quite unbefitting our rank and costume. The hound lunged eagerly against the leash. We must be getting close.