“Maria!” Hortia called. “The queen wishes for a new floral arrangement in the banquet hall. We’re to have visitors, and we can’t have yesterday’s roses wilting.”
Jessica groaned inwardly. The queen had admired the decoration she volunteered to make during her first week so much that the duty had always fallen to her since. Initially, the task had proved beneficial, allowing Jessica a chance to search the insides of the palace for Cinis as she claimed to have lost her way when departing. But now that she had found the boy, the chore was useless, along with the rest of the gardening guise she had acquired to snoop around the nobles. And Hortia, in her jealousy of Jessica being delegated the duty, made it her personal duty to spot every flaw in the arrangement, and ensure the queen’s requests were followed to the letter.
Soon she would leave, Jessica decided, but at the moment the guards’ obsession with the burnt tavern had kept her rooted firmly within the grounds. Should they find Cinis before she did, he would likely be brought to the palace. There, if he was still alive, she would have the chance to free him.
A week ago, when the tavern burned to the ground, Jessica had watched from across the street as the palace guards picked through the embers for any valuables that may have survived the burn. She had expected the boy to escape from the fire, but he certainly had not left the building through the front door. And no matter how gifted he may be, he could not have survived the crushing weight as the house imploded, its wooden beams snapping like twigs while fiery sparks ascended into the sky. She tapped her feet nervously. If he had died, her whole mission would be rendered fruitless. The Shadows would have won.
Then one of the guards disappeared in a cloud of ash and smoke as he stepped over the remnants of what had once been a dividing inner wall. Jessica stepped closer for a look as two others hoisted his squirming body out of the newly formed hole, quickly brushing the red hot embers off of his cloak.
“What is it?” called the captain from the street.
“No reward is what it is!” shouted the guard who had fallen. “There’s a tunnel out of here!”
They gathered around the gaping hole, peering into the newly revealed tunnel and struggling to keep their balance as an avalanche of debris slid downward beneath their feet. One reached down and dusted off a small object from the crater’s edge.
“Catch,” he called, throwing it to the captain. It soared over his head, bouncing along the gravel road until it came to rest at Jessica’s feet. Picking it up, she wiped it off with the edge of her robes before, squinting at the box’s surface. One look at the charred insignia was all she needed to confirm her suspicions.
“Give it here, girl, that’s tampering with evidence,” said the captain, gruffly swiping the box from her outstretched arm. “Boys, we’re in luck. Anyone who finds something worthwhile in this pile is to be rewarded. Ten silver coins to each of us if it’s useful.”
She had watched all sorts of objects become unearthed and piled into a wagon by the scavenging guards, which had then been transported to a small warehouse on inner-palace grounds. They had locked the door, leaving the wagon unwatched while rousing the head of the guard.
Since then, she had found no trace of the boy, though she had tried sneaking into the warehouse. She had tried breaking through the door, but it was constructed of a heavy, solid oak that refused to budge. All of the windows were locked, and shattering the telltale panes would be impossible without being heard. She considered using her gifts, but doubted they would prove useful in the vrael—at least not without arousing suspicion. In an act of desperation, she jammed in the key she had received on her first day as gardener, and the lock immediately clicked in response.
She had rushed into the large dark room, finding it to be an armory. Bronze breastplates occupied the walls, spears clustered in the corners, and a small assortment of helmets circled the perimeter. In the center was the wagon, and she dug into the contents, tossing aside a few scorched books and a statue of a man so broken it could not be identified. At the bottom an envelope marked with golden ink caught her eye, as well as a large folded map that had been with the books. She slipped them into an inner pocket and checked the rest for anything valuable, but found nothing.
Then she piled the evidence back onto the wagon, forming a pyramid as the pile took shape. Taking a lantern from the wall, she poured the oil over it, drenching the book pages and wagon wood with the fluid. Then she lit the lantern and smashed it over the top, the remaining oil spilling over the sides of the wagon, and the blaze igniting, nearly singing the tips of her hair as she backed away. It crackled as the evidence was consumed, nothing surviving the intense heat as she darted from the warehouse and to the other end of the palace lawns. Within minutes she could see the pillar of smoke that signaled the effectiveness of her handiwork and heard the horns summoning the water crews.
She could hear the head guard shouting from a hundred yards away when he found the evidence destroyed, enough spit flying out of his mouth to extinguish the fire as he ordered the pleading captain to the dungeons for leaving the warehouse unsupervised. Ever since that incident, the palace grounds had been patrolled regularly, and five hundred silver coins had been offered for the name of the arsonist. Three servants had been reported since, and the palace fool had turned himself in for a mocking chance at the silver.
Jessica had read the letter in the confinement of her own quarters—a small cabin near the palace’s boundary wall, amongst a small apple orchard. She was able to glean little from what remained of the tattered paper, which was dated over fifteen years ago and charred thoroughly by the flames.
“Maria, the queen wants nightshade in the collection, and that only grows on the far side of the grounds. You’ll have to rush to make it, if you still can.” Hortia’s voice had grown agitated as her feet traced nervous circles in the dust outside Jessica’s cabin. She peeked in the window, much to Jessica’s annoyance, and Jessica put the letter she had been studying back into her desk drawer. As important as it was, if she were to keep up appearances, it would have to wait. Already she had studied it for days and found nothing.
“Hortia, I am perfectly capable of reading the queen’s instructions and following them without your intervention,” Jessica fumed, throwing open the door of her cabin.
“Of course you are,” scowled Hortia, “which must be why the queen has requested a new arrangement so soon, hm?”
Jessica frowned. It had been just two days ago that she had brought in the last arrangement, and the queen usually had them done weekly. Skirting around Hortia, she walked away from the cabin, a list in hand of what she would need.
An hour and a half later, Jessica arrived in the banquet hall, arms full of the sweet-smelling nightshade. Queen Egola received her, a tall woman with well-placed jewels ornamenting her slender body, watching as Jessica took down the recent decorations and replaced them. Soon after, King Idus entered the room, an enormous man with an even larger stomach that stretched the lining of his clothes. Two figures, with whom he was conversing, trailed in his footsteps, easily keeping up with the king’s lazy pace.
“As I was saying, it’s such a shame that you came at such an hour, and with nearly no announcement. There could have been a feast for you, and a large one at that! I never turn down a good opportunity for a feast,” chortled the king, patting at his belt.
“It is we who bring the gifts, Your Majesty,” replied the first and taller of the two, his boots clicking away as he walked. He wore a dark cloak with a silver clasp, fashioned after a closed claw, digging into the fabric at his neck. His jet black hair swept above his eyebrows, and below them his irises shone a cold gray that dominated his other facial features.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have, Rorcul,” squealed King Idus with evident pleasure.
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