“Eloi,” muttered Trinh.
I just stared back at the children who were staring mutely at us. Dark cloaked strangers carrying weapons filled the doorway and they did not move or cry out. Naran was the eldest at six years, the others were clearly younger, two were only just toddlers. I wondered if they could see the blood staining our gear or knew the violence that had swept through the palace. Poor things.
Hess peeled back from Quill, and wiped her eyes, “What are you doing here?” Then, noticing his blood-spattered clothes and weapons, “How did you get in?”
“We’re here to rescue you,” replied Quill.
“Did Tarr send you? They told me he…” she trailed off. Quill said nothing, but his face must have conveyed the truth. Hess bowed her head, her grip tightening on Quill’s biceps till her knuckles turned white.
Quill squeezed her shoulders, “He was brave.”
“He died thinking of you and Naran,” I offered quietly from the doorway.
Hess’s eyes flicked to the door, noticing Trinh and me for the first time. “You’re alive, too,” she managed a weak smile, her eyes bright with tears. “He would be glad.”
“Did they hurt you?” asked Quill.
Hess shook her head. “No,” her lips gave a bitter twist and she laid a hand on her belly, “Too valuable. But these poor babies would be here alone if it weren’t for this child.”
Trinh took a step forward, “We have to go now.”
One of the children on the bed whimpered. Hess looked over and quickly went to them, reaching assuring hands to caress each, “It’s alright, little ones, these are friends.”
“I want momma,” sniffled one child, a little girl with wispy blonde hair.
“No, baby, I’m sorry.” Hess reached out and pulled the little girl close. “I can’t bring you to momma.” She raised her eyes to Trinh, “I can’t leave them to her.”
Trinh hesitated, then he walked to the bed and sat on the edge. He opened his arms invitingly, addressing the little girl with a tenderness I found surprising from the taciturn prince, “You’re alright, I’ll keep you safe.”
The child looked into his eyes, and then, ignoring the blood on his clothing, reached for him. Trinh picked her up and snuggled her close. He looked at Hess, “There are five of us: We’ll carry them all out.”
One of the other children crawled toward Trinh, reaching to be picked up too. I turned to the closet as Trinh shifted the girl to one arm and scooped up the other child. These babies were not dressed for the cold outside, and if we got out of the palace they were in for a long night and a long cold day. After that, if we were still alive, who knew how far we’d go before sleeping indoors. The closet was about the size of Bel’s, and about as well stocked. Probably belonged to one of Khattmali’s entourage. I managed to find one fur lined cloak and three fine winter weight dresses. When I emerged, Rakov had joined the group in the bedroom. Hesperide had wrapped two of the children in the blanket from the bed, and these were in Rakov’s arms. There had been another blanket on the couch, and this was now wrapped around the children Trinh carried.
“Where is the nearest entrance to the servant’s passages?” asked Trinh as Hess finished tucking the blanket around his charges.
“The Ambassador’s rooms,” replied Hess, “But the next is in an alcove down the hall.”
I extended the fur cloak to Hess, who caught my hand and squeezed it before taking the cloak. I met her eye only briefly, not knowing what to say on this terrible night of terrible things.
“We’ll go there, then,” said Trinh. “Get out of sight as quickly as we can.”
Turning away, I moved where Quill was crouched by Naran. The little boy had one arm around Hew and was listening seriously to whatever Quill was telling him. Naran smiled when he saw me, “Miss Meredithe,” his voice was watery from crying.
“Call me Zare,” I replied, kneeling to wrap the dresses around him. I used their sleeves to tie them around his waist and crisscrossing his chest. Hopefully they would keep him reasonably warm.
“Zare,” Naran tried the name on his tongue. “That’s a funny name.”
I smiled. “No funnier than yours.”
“My name isn’t funny.”
“Exactly,” I patted the bulky knots. It would do.
“Ready, Naran?” asked Quill.
The boy nodded, and Quill picked him up. I collected Hew’s leash and got to my feet. With a glance at the others I led the way out of the room. The door to the hallway was cracked open, letting a thin beam of light slice the room. I could see Ayglos’s shadow shift as we approached, and the door pushed open slowly.
“Are you ready?” asked my brother, without turning to look at us.
“We are,” I replied, pulling the door open just a little further.
“Come quickly, then.”
“Turn right,” said Hess from behind me.
I strode out with Hew, my fingertips brushing the knives on my thigh for comfort. The others followed, Trinh, Hess, Rakov and then Quill. I could imagine the double take as my brother noticed the number of children. Other than Hew’s panting and the occasional sniffle, we were surprisingly quiet. It felt as though we were all holding our breath, and we certainly weren’t moving as quickly as on our trip in. We passed the hallway we’d taken to get here, continuing straight for an excruciating time before Hess whispered, “See those alcoves ahead? Just before that junction? We want alcove on the right.”
I nodded and angled for it. My steps slowed as we got closer to the junction, my skin starting to crawl. It took a second to place the feeling, but it was the same I had felt in the Queen’s rooms when Quill and I had found the remnants of that evil rite. Lightning crackled through me. I scanned the halls, looking for any sign, expecting to see ash, blood, and black feathers. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything over Hew’s breathing and my own heartbeat. Gingerly, I approached the alcove and peered inside. It was empty. A couple chairs and a table framed a tapestry. Hess touched my elbow and I jumped, “Behind the tapestry,” she offered, kindly not commenting on my spook.
I stepped into the alcove, every breath expecting something to jump out. I drew a knife before approaching the tapestry and lifting it aside. The passageway was dark. I hooked the tapestry over a knob in the wall and stepped in enough to look for a lamp. There was one, just inside, hanging on a hook just within my reach. Lifting it down, I lit it with a match stored in the base.
The lamp cast yellow light on the wooden walls of the passage, showing it was empty and devoid of dark rituals. Comforted, I handed the lamp to Hess. “Do you know the way?” I asked.
“Yes,” she looked at Trinh, he nodded. Hess took the lead, the men filing in behind her, each heavy laden with wide eyed and silent children.
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