The shadow of the hulking carriage loomed before Jessica, stretching out across the lawns to smother the verdant grass under thick steel wheels. Rorcul slid open the lock fastened to the iron door, and the hair on her neck prickled as the sound of agitated scratching came from within, accompanied by low growls. Reaching just inside the door, Rorcul retrieved a pair of gloves—the night itself had grown cool, but Jessica found that Rorcul himself exuded a chill about him with an icy grip far more tangible than that of the surrounding air. Just before he returned the door to its original position, she glimpsed three pairs of glowing, red dots staring at her from the back of the carriage, surrounded by dark black forms. And where Rorcul was cold, the air within the carriage was warm and carried a scent like that of rotten eggs that tickled the back of her nose.

She tensed, her memory flickering back, remembering those eyes from long ago. From private lessons with Cesaro as he cracked open books caked with dust, books that few living eyes could see. Books filled with more legend than fact. Or, at least, that she hoped were filled with more legend than fact.”

“I hear that you’re new to the palace,” said Rorcul, breaking her train of thought as he slipped on the satin gloves. “So strange that you would leave the beautiful city of Andrea for this dreadful place, isn’t it?”

“As an Andrean gardener, I make the ugly beautiful. Even what appears to be the most barren of soils can still hold a seed,” said Jessica as she held her hands behind her, such that he could not see them shaking, but her voice was bold and unwavering.

“I see. And even in the most barren soils, weeds still find a way to sprout, no matter how often they are uprooted,” he replied, and he crushed a small budding dandelion that had infiltrated its way onto the lawn, twisting his heel into the ground until the stem snapped and the yellow bled into the surrounding grass. Then he continued speaking, not looking at her, but rather staring ahead toward the gardens.

“I understand that you see much of what occurs on these grounds. You are close to the royal family, you hear the servants’ gossip. You watch visitors come and go. By the queen’s most interesting floral arrangement of nightshade, I’m certain you knew of my coming. It seems little would go unnoticed by you, gardener. So tell me, has there been anything strange lately?”

“By your own words, I am freshly acquainted with the palace. Everything is strange when you have not yet realized what is normal.”

“But even you must have noticed some things. I heard there was a fire in one of the guards’ sheds recently—do you know who would have wanted to cause such a commotion, and disturb the peace?”

The peace, thought Jessica, and shivered. Was he referring to the king’s peace? Or the treaty that claimed that ambassadors would not try to turn Querkus from its neutral position?

“Unattended lanterns are fickle things,” she replied, her voice casual, “especially with the guards at this palace, who seem to have less common sense than children. I suspect the shed burned down from their negligence. In Andrea, they would be an embarrassment. Truly, I don’t know where they found this recent bunch, who seem to be a new low.”

“Ah, I see. But the guards are not the only ones strange and foreign around here, are they?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know exactly what I mean. Come now, surely you would like to meet some of the guards you have just insulted? I think they would appreciate some constructive criticism.”

He whistled softly, three low lingering notes that stretched across the yard. In the distance, Jessica saw three guards look up from their post on the wall toward Rorcul and start walking his way. Almost immediately, four others joined them, and the seven figures marched in a line across the grounds. One of them she recognized—the quiet guard with strange mannerisms that had accompanied her outside the palace on her visits to the estates. Red cords still surrounded his chest, but ever since the burning of the tavern, she knew that those cords were not from an enchanted coat. And the others bore similar cords, cords of Fire Magic, Water Magic, Earth Magic, and Air Magic. Of the demons, beneath the human guise, that could wield it.

Without the Vrael, she’d have a fighting chance. Depending upon Rorcul’s abilities, she’d at least be able to dispatch the guards. And should that fail, she could most certainly escape. But with the Vrael—well, with the Vrael it was another matter entirely. And it was eight to one.

She could try attacking now, but assuming that Rorcul thought her to be just a gardener withholding information, she would give herself away. And if she fled, and managed to escape, he would reach the same conclusion. But if she stayed, she might be able to keep up her act, and maybe misdirect them with a few well-placed words.

Halfway between the guards and Jessica was an old shack, dilapidated and shedding shingles. As she watched the guards, thinking of her next move, its double doors silently opened, and a lone head peeked out, peering to the left and right but failing to see the line of guards in the blind spot behind the door. The face turned toward Jessica, and her stomach flipped as she met Cinis’ eyes. Her mouth opened in shock as she prepared to shout a warning, but Rorcul cut her off.

“Please, shouting for help will do you no good,” said Rorcul, still peering off toward the general grounds. “All I’m looking for is simple answers to simple questions. A rumor would suffice, or even hearsay. Come, there must be something you know. Some gossip that you heard whispered in the night.” And with a jolt, Jessica realized that Rorcul had not seen Cinis, but rather stood transfixed on the coming guards, a slight smile on his face as he sensed her internal struggle. Go back! Hide! she thought, and she breathed a sigh of relief as Cinis retreated back into building like a snail into its shell.

She breathed a sigh, but halfway through, it caught in her throat as a gasp.

For just as the line of guards reached the shack’s entrance, the double doors burst open, and a dark mass of men poured from within to clash with the advancing line.

Chapter 32

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