Behind us, I heard Trinh suck in a breath through his teeth, then command Hew in that language only he and the hound knew. Hew hesitated, then skidded to a stop, looking pathetically over his shoulder at Trinh.
“We’re near the ambassador’s chambers,” explained Trinh quietly, catching up with Ayglos and me.
“Do you think they’re in her chambers?” I asked.
Trinh gave me a look, “Would you wish a frightened child in your rooms? No. But I imagine they are close.”
“We’ll have to check each room individually—”
“—dealing with whatever we find there—” cut in Ayglos.
“–or use Hew,” I finished.
Trinh looked down at the hound, who was looking down the hallway as if staring could transport him. “We can’t have him baying and bringing the whole army to investigate,” said Trinh “We check the rooms.”
Without a word, we split to different sides of the hallway. Trinh and Rakov slunk along one side, Quill and Ayglos along the other. I walked a little ahead, keeping a tight hold on Hew. The gentle swish of our cloaks mingled with Hew’s panting and the click of Hew’s nails.
The hound glanced from Trinh to me to the hallway over and over again as we walked. I got the impression that the hound’s distress wasn’t about the hunt any longer, it was about Naran being close by. I considered letting him off the leash to find Naran on his own, but a vision of him spitted by soldiers stopped me. The first door we came to was locked. Quill started pulling out lockpicking tools and I kept walking with Hew. As we neared the end of the hallway I slowed, listening. Hew whined. I put my hand on his head and found wet nose instead. There were voices coming from the right. I leaned against the wall, as if that would help me listen.
“…heard a dog…”
I edged forward trying to get an eye around the corner. There were four guards standing in front of a door at the end of the hallway. I pulled back and looked over my shoulder, beckoning to the men. Ayglos was the first to join me. Then, with a glance back at the others, he stepped around the corner and strode toward the guards.
I peered after him, aware of the others approaching as quietly as they could.
The guards straightened, watching Ayglos’s approach with interest. “What is it?” asked one.
“Have you seen or heard anything unusual?” asked Ayglos when he was just steps away.
“I heard a dog,” replied one.
“He thinks he heard a dog,” said another.
Ayglos’s fist cracked across the jaw of the first guard and he dropped. I ran forward, but before Hew and I could reach the conflict it was over. Ayglos was even better than I remembered. He clearly had not been sitting on his hands these months. Ayglos stooped over the bodies and looked back at me, “Look for keys.”
By the time Quill, Trinh, and Rakov arrived I was handing Ayglos a key pulled from a dead man’s pocket. We all stood poised for action as Ayglos turned the key and gently eased open the door. The room beyond was dark. Hew whined when we didn’t go in immediately. I looked at him, then I took a few steps out of the torchlit hallway and into the dark of the room. Hew followed eagerly. To our left, the only light came from an orange glow seeping under the bottom of a door. Quill and Trinh moved in flanking us. We stood for a moment, listening.
When we heard nothing over Hew’s panting, Trinh spoke, “Find a lamp.”
There was carpet under my boots, and it swallowed my and Hew’s footfalls as we proceeded into the room using the light from the door. A lamp sprang to life to the right, casting a warm light around the room that grew in strength as Quill turned it up. This was a sitting room, well furnished with plush furniture. The fireplace to the right was cold, and there was no one else in the room.
Rakov and Ayglos dragged the bodies inside while Quill and Trinh silently walked through the room checking for anyone or anything dangerous. Hew was interested in the other door but I held him back.
Once the four guards were inside, Ayglos stepped out, mostly closing the door behind him.
Trinh and Quill approached the door with the light behind it. I joined them, gathering Hew’s leash in my left hand and drawing a knife from my thigh with my right. After a grim exchange of looks, Trinh turned the knob and gave the door a push. It swung open slowly, revealing a fourposter bed and a fireplace with a healthy fire.
“Who’s there?” a woman’s voice demanded.
Quill exhaled, “Hess!” and sheathing his blades he rushed into the room.
“Quill!” Hesperide rose from a chair by the fireplace and Quill engulfed her in an embrace. Her dark hair was a loose tumble as she buried her face in Quill’s shoulder. Quill curled around her, as if he could shield her from everything that had happened this night. A rock strangled my throat. I felt like an intruder as I stood in the door. I wondered if Trinh felt the same way, because he didn’t move to enter either. I dropped Hew’s leash and the hound bounded to the bed. He stood on his hind legs and thrust his nose into the face of the redheaded child sleeping on the pillows.
Naran sat up with a cry and threw his arms around Hew’s neck.
I started when the bedcovers began to move, rising and falling like the coils of a sea serpent. Then, other heads popped up from the pillows, faces white with fear, eyes red from tears. There were more children here. The rock sank from my throat to my stomach as I looked at five little faces. The children Tarr supported. The Nether Queen was taking all of them.