Chapter Thirteen: A Greater Threat

DARK clouds drifted in from the east, where the Mysanhal foothills stretched into an infinite distance. Ora sat in the branches of a plum tree as Renna paced below. He had been agitated over Berengar, and she suspected part of him knew he had been put under a spell.

Lightning danced along the edges of the clouds. When a low rumble followed, Renna crossed his arms and tilted his head back to search the mosaic of sunlight, ripe plums, and spring-green leaves. Cool wind swept back his hair.

“Best get down,” he said. “Sun will be gone in a blink, and that storm looks fierce.”

She did not answer. Countless rooftops stretched below the lodge, but in the distance, she could make out the city’s wall. Beyond that, glistening terraced farmlands, small orchards, and clusters of homes hugged the steep hilltops.

“Ora!” Renna tossed a plum at her.

The fruit struck her leg, and she peered down at him. “Where’s the market district?”

“A little west of here. Did you hear me?”

“About the storm?” She scrambled down from her perch and leapt from the last branch. “Is Elder Kavyn’s shop in the market district?”

“Close to there, yes. And before you ask, I don’t know exactly where to find a wayfarer.”

“I bet there’s one near the crossing.”

“A reasonable assumption.”

“I have to leave before Tyg returns,” she said. Berengar’s deal had left her uncertain, and she would not rely on his whim to help her brother. Hademar could not wait.

“What’s the point in telling me this?”

“You said you won’t stop me.”

“I won’t as long as I don’t know what you’re up to. They lashed my brother for being a drunken idiot. What do you think will be done about the kitchen master who let the Marigens’ human sneak away?” When she did not answer, his voice became dark. “And what do you think will happen to you if you’re caught?”

“Don’t try to scare me into—”

He cut her off as he turned toward the path. “Let’s get back to the kitchen, Ora.”

Like poison, a wretched notion seeped into her thoughts, and she lingered for a heartbeat. Her eyes darted across the plum-strewn earth. A rock would do. Renna would not expect it, and she could sprint across the grounds before anyone noticed. But then what? The doors to the lodge could not be farther from where they stood, and if she ran, it would arouse suspicion.

It was the wrong moment.

“I’ll have you sweep the main hall tomorrow,” Renna said just as she caught up to him. “During the morning drills so it will be empty.”

Renna was giving her a chance. Guilt gnawed at her stomach for the savage idea that had tempted her. She said nothing but gave a slight nod to show she understood.

The evening deepened quickly as the storm approached. By the time they reached the kitchen, a pall of dark, indigo clouds roiled over Tirnan. Renna had fallen behind on preparing dinner, so he sent Ora to Callum’s quarters alone.

She found the Valor speaking to a dreary group of fae in the passage along the training yard. There were three of them, all dressed in drab gray robes and shifting on their bare feet as if the ground unnerved them. Everything about them was gray. Their stringy hair, the colorless pallor of their skin, the strange feathers along their necks.

As Ora approached, she heard Callum say, “This news is urgent.”

“There is a storm,” hissed the tallest, his chin lifted so he could meet the Valor’s gaze.

Callum looked to the sky but appeared unimpressed by the clouds. “You’re sluaghs. Chaos is your friend, is it not?”

“For the right price,” said another.

“Price?” Callum’s voice became low, dangerous. “You are in service to the Yewolyns. Your pay is fair, and you will do as told.”

They exchanged flustered glances, then hopped back a few feet. Their bone-thin shoulders quivered. Their limbs shifted. Between one breath and another, they became three shabby, gray birds and took off over the roof.

“Damn sluaghs,” Callum growled beneath his breath. “Is Renna done with you then, Ora?”

“So it would appear.”

“Watch your tongue.”

Taken aback by his foul mood, she studied him. “Something happened, didn’t it?”

“It is none of your concern. Come,” he said.

They left the lodge and began to make their way toward the palace. This time, Callum did not stop to chat or flirt. He walked ahead of Ora in silence, his shoulders tense.

The first cold drops of rain fell just as they reached the palace. Wynn greeted them almost as soon as they stepped into the grand entry hall. The thachwing woman was much calmer and composed around Callum. She did not fidget with her skirt or wring her hands together. Instead, she smiled and beckoned them onward.

“Queen Innes was expecting you. She’s in the conservatory,” Wynn said. “She’ll be pleased you brought the girl. She’s so fond of her, you know. I don’t understand it, but Her Majesty is … Her Majesty.”

“Yes,” said Callum, but he sounded distracted.

Wynn continued to chatter on about trivial matters. The queen’s collection of Merinian ferns had caught mealy mites, a charming traveler—Ora assumed Maol—had decided to extend his stay at the palace, a painter had just put the finishing touches on a portrait of Her Majesty, and so on.

The door to the conservatory was made of thick, clouded glass and copper details. When they entered, the last light of day was fading, and ornate candelabras lit their way. The glass enclosure amplified the rain and thunder, but as they reached a circular opening in the lush flora, the deafening sounds became muffled.

Several trees with thick canopies and braided trunks arched over the space. Beneath their feet stretched a mosaic of rich blues, greens, and reds in lively floral patterns. The carefully laid tiles were polished to a brilliant shine that glistened in the candlelight. For all the opulence, it was the distinct charge in the air that caught Ora’s attention. She wondered what sort of magic had been cast there.

The queen sat in a blue-velvet chair with a butterfly perched on her thin finger. Its wings were the color of dark, inky glade berries and kept a languid beat. She leveled her pale gaze on the delicate creature even as Callum bowed before her. Ora stood unmoving behind him with her chin lifted and hands clasped behind her back.

“Valor,” Innes said, ignoring the girl’s poor etiquette. With her free hand, she gestured to a golden tray on a table beside her chair. It was piled high with what looked to be tiny, pink carvings of roses. “Have one if you’d like. They’re butter sweets from Ullkyrin.”

“A kind offer, but I have come to discuss more serious matters, Your Majesty,” said Callum.

She looked up from the butterfly at last. “You have come to tell me there is an imposter among the Yewolyns.”

The queen’s words caught Ora off guard. She thought of Berengar, but he had not joined the ranks yet. How would Innes know of him already?

With an indifferent expression, Callum produced a small cloth bundle and unwrapped it to reveal a metal ball. “There was, yes. A sylvn golem.”

The butterfly fluttered down from Innes’s hand and found a new perch on the sword-like petal of a vivid red flower. The queen reached out and plucked the silver ball from the cloth.

“Your Highness—” he began.

“One can learn to ignore the sting of silver, Valor.”

Ora felt her heart grow restless. She had not seen silver since arriving in the fae realm.

“Either your wife has taken care of our sylv problem, or the spell faded,” said Innes.

A half smile pulled at the corner of Callum’s lips, and pride warmed his words. “I have no doubt that Magus Marigen was successful.”

The queen returned the silver ball to the cloth, which the Valor still held in an outstretched hand. He wrapped it and tucked the bundle back into his pocket.

A dainty sigh passed between Innes’s lips, and she folded her hands on her lap. “She undoubtedly sees a greater threat.”

“Your Majesty, I am quick to remind Tyg of the peace that you have nurtured in Mysanhal. She is loyal to your will and to mine. A Yewolyn does not act without orders.”

Ora’s eyes widened. She did not imagine Tyg would approve of her husband’s words. The queen either did not notice or, once again, chose to ignore her.

“I do not mean to sow doubt between you, but please, Valor, be impartial in your judgement. You have always been discerning and wise, but when it comes to Tyg, I worry that you see only what you wish to,” said Innes.

Callum bowed his head. “I understand your concerns, Your Majesty, but I assure you, I place Mysanhal before my own passions.”

“Good. Then, you will tell me what you are so clearly withholding.”

It was then Ora realized the Valor was gazing straight into Innes’s eyes. A long, uncomfortable silence followed. Eventually, Callum shook his head as if waking from an afternoon nap.

“Magus Marigen has been sending scouts to Mysanhal’s farthest reaches. The golem—it took the form of one of her scouts,” he said. “My apologies, Your Majesty. I should not withhold such details.”

“No need to apologize, my dear Valor.” Innes stood, her long skirts sweeping across the mosaic tiles beneath their feet. “I do not want another war. Ensure that Magus Marigen does not meddle with the sylv a second time, and I will take measures to placate those who live within our borders.”

“I will, Your Majesty.”

“And Callum,” she said and reached out to caress his face. He shivered at her touch. “Visit me more often. I much prefer discussing these matters with you.”

He caught her delicate wrist and gently pushed her hand away. “Tyg simply wants to protect Mysanhal. She does not easily forget the sylv’s atrocities. Surely you recall that it was a sylvn alchemist who killed her father.”

“Yes. We all suffered great losses during my husband’s wars, but that is precisely why I wish to avoid another.” A deep sadness filled Innes’s gaze, and Ora wondered if she too had lost someone dear to her.

“I understand, Your Majesty, but please, hear her when she returns,” said Callum.

Innes smiled. “Of course, Valor, it is always beneficial to keep good company with those who have opposing intentions.”

“Yes,” he said and then bowed. “I will send word once she returns, Your Majesty.”

“Good. Now, I wonder if you would allow me to speak to your human girl alone? I wish to see how she is faring.”

Ora, who had been watching the exchange with increasing apprehension, flinched and took a step back. She had no desire to be left alone with Innes, who was proving to be far more manipulative and cunning than she first seemed.

“Of course, Your Majesty. I will wait in the Great Hall,” he said.

The Valor left along one of the conservatory paths, but Innes did not speak right away. She returned to her chair and studied Ora, her pale gaze just as haunting and entrancing as it was during court. But something had changed. Ora did not find herself so easily drawn in.

“Fascinating,” said Innes. “I sensed something had shifted, but even now, I cannot discern what it is. Cree has blessed us with quite the mystery, Eudora.”

The sound of her true name made Ora’s skin prickle.

“Tell me, what do you think of Mysanhal? Of Tirnan?”

It was not the question she expected, and she stumbled over her words. “I think—well, it’s not …” She swallowed hard. “It is very different from Nor.”

“Tell me of your parents, Eu—”

“I will tell you without need of my name,” she said quickly.

“Plucky of you to interrupt your queen,” Innes mused. “But go on. I will know if you are lying anyway.”

“There is little to tell. My mother is Norrish and so was my father. I lived my whole life in the Hy Borea, in Fel, and I want to return.”

“Your father was? He is dead, then?”

“He died of a wasting sickness while I was in my mother’s womb.”

“So you never knew him.”

Ora’s cheeks grew hot. “I know him through what he left behind.”

“How sentimental,” Innes said, voice as sugary sweet as the rose candies beside her. “Come closer, dear.”

Ora stepped forward, but the queen was not satisfied. She took Ora’s hand to pull her close.

“There. Now I can have a better look at you.” Innes held Ora’s chin between her thumb and index finger to turn her head every which way. “I wonder if you are part fae?”

Not long ago, the idea would have sounded absurd, but she had used magic. She could feel magic.

“How would you know?” she asked as the queen released her.

“There are ways to find out. Would you like to know what you truly are, Eudora?”

“Yes,” she said. Her name had summoned the answer without her thinking of it. Furious, she bit down on her tongue. Despite her curiosity, she did not want the queen involved in finding out the truth. Besides, it did not matter if she was part fae or anything else. She was Norrish first.

“I will make preparations.” Innes waved her away. “You may leave now.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Ora said. “I just want to return home. I don’t need to know what I am. It doesn’t matter. Just—”

“I said leave, Eudora, and show some decorum. Bow to your queen.”

She wanted to argue, but her body defied her will. She bowed, turned from the queen, and marched out of the conservatory. Only once she stood in the hallway did the force of her name fade. She leaned against the wall, breathless and dizzy.

“It’s the last night,” she promised herself. “You will be home tomorrow.”

Sarah Day ©2021