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Siege City’s wealthiest quarter was a carefully constructed neighborhood of mansions, parks and gardens bisected by well-paved streets, a sudden oasis of calm on the edge of the urban sprawl. The wide avenues were lined with beech trees and here and there the front of some large estate overlooked the road. Lilac hedges were in vogue, and their pale flower clusters waved like hands in the breeze. Their scent was a refreshing change from that of the usual stench of the city.
It was cooler here, and darker, as though the suburb were trying to convince its inhabitants that they had escaped to the country for the night. The street was illumined by little magical lights that hovered and buzzed like fireflies, dipping and swerving over the prison carriage as it made its stoic way down the lane – large enough for three such carriages – and towards the palace.
The quarter was kept clean by an army of civil servants who emerged in the early hours of the morning to clear away the horse leavings and remove any accumulated detritus. But it was far too early in the night for them to be out. In fact, the prison carriage passed several parties that were still in full swing. The soberer of the guests stared after it and wondered very loudly who might be inside and what the transgressor had done. Some of the more inebriated shouted at the driver. He ignored them.
Within, Kate tried only once to twitch aside the curtains and peer out at the lane as they crossed it. Her mother placed one hand against her own, keeping the curtain safely in place and denying any curious onlookers the satisfaction of recognizing the carriage’s guests. Kate had been hurriedly dressed in her riding clothes and provided with a coat, which she clutched to her as though it were the only thing that could protect her purity.
They were kept company by a guard who sat across from them, watching stoically but saying nothing. Every so often Kate threw him an insolent glare, which seemed not to phase him. Eva sat still and upright, her own face a mask of calm.
The prison carriage rattled over the main boulevard and they came into view of the palace. It was a gargantuan construction of white marble veined with green and gold, shaped like a crescent moon. The low semicircle of buildings was crowned by the central tower with its three iconic, copper-toped spires. Tonight the palace was mostly dark, but Eva felt more exposed than she ever had been in her life as she disembarked from the prison carriage.
When the guards approached Kate, she tried to shrug them off with angry words. A soft reproach from her mother silenced her and she accompanied them with sullen obedience. Eva, for her part, stood erect and proud. She moved with such ease and composure that her guards, out of some habitual respect for her nobility, did not hold her but formed a kind of ring around her that moved up to the palace doors. Any onlooker ignorant of the night’s earlier affairs would not have been able to tell whether she was a prisoner or a person of importance.
Eva had initially feared that they would enter through the main doors, pass through the large antechamber and make their way into the audience hall where King Phillip usually held his court. It was early enough in the evening that some festivity endorsed by the king might still be well attended. Had she been presented to the king while some feast was underway, she might not have been able to bear it.
But tonight the audience hall was dark. They were led past it, through the antechamber and down a hallway that wound around and up towards the palace’s private apartments. Eva had been in such apartments a few times, but Kate never. Daniel had often disappeared into one of them or another for business, and once in a while she had accompanied him.
The guards’ boots thunked on the stone floors in a steady beat that she thought would wake the entire palace. They trundled down the small but well-lit corridor without conversing, and the atmosphere soon became stifling. She was almost grateful when they stopped before the heavy oak door, watched by the king’s page. Upon seeing their party, he slipped inside and was absent for only a few moments before he returned. Nodding to the guards, he took up his post once more.
They entered the open door and it closed behind them with a heavy noise that seemed to promise the fate of the two women on the other side.
The private office of King Phillip was small but comfortable, a private chamber not far from his room. He sat in a large armchair before a wooden table that served today as a desk. The dark circles beneath his eyes suggested that he had been sleeping, and woken to receive the captives. He wore only a thin golden circlet on his head to remind his guests of his royal position.
He was a thin man, with sallow skin that seemed to hang loosely from his bones. He had only recently recovered from a wasting illness that had kept him trembling in his bed, tossing and turning and bathed in sweat like a child trapped in some perpetual nightmare. As a result his clothing hung loose as well, and his blue eyes lacked the brightness that had once been hailed as a sign of his great intellect. He was writing when the guards entered the room, with a glass pen that skated over the page and barely betrayed the trembling of his hand.
There was one other man in the room, and he paced back and forth with an almost frenzied agitation. He resembled the king in looks, but where the other seemed tired, weary and weak, he was full of energy and fire. His brown hair had been hastily combed and pulled back, as though he, too, had just risen from bed. The two figures shared the same long face, sharp nose and those piercing eyes, but the countenance of the man who stood was far sterner than that of his seated companion.
The guards bowed to the king, who lifted his pen and dismissed them with a flick. He barely looked up. They then shuffled back out the door, leaving Eva and Kate at last.
As soon as they had gone, Eva dropped into a deep and graceful curtsy. After a moment, her daughter imitated somewhat awkwardly. With bowed heads they awaited the word of the king.
That word was a little while in coming. When Phillip was finished writing he set down the pen and looked at them with a downturned mouth, tapping his index finger on the table. When he had finished scrutinizing the pair, he said at last, “Rise.” They immediately did so. “Please, sit if you wish. Do you require water, or wine?”
“Nothing, Your Majesty,” Eva said. She did not sit, but clasped her hands in front of her and returned the king’s gaze with one just as frank.
“I trust you are well?” he asked. Eva did not move.
Her hands did not unfold, her head did not dip in that manner of customary politeness. She kept her grey-green eyes fixed upon his face. When it became evident that she would not reply, he cut to the chase. “Do you know why you have been asked to attend on me tonight?” he said.
Eva shook her head.
“Someone planted a number of explosive devices in the train station. We do not know when, we only know that they were activated at half past two. No one was present in the station when it exploded. The night train had already left. But the train tracks were destroyed.” She inhaled sharply. “Soon after the Falconer reported that he had found evidence enough for a warrant and would be making an arrest. Do you deny that a messenger delivered a missive to your house earlier this evening?”
“No,” Eva replied.
“And it exhorted your husband to leave the city with all haste?”
“Do you believe the word of a messenger boy over the lifelong friendship that your family has maintained with my husband?” Her tone was carefully neutral, but the second man in the room looked down at the floor and even Phillip’s eyes flickered away before they returned to her face.
“I wished to speak to Daniel Gallow myself,” he said at length. “Perhaps we might have been able to laugh it off together. Perhaps he might have been able to advise us on our next course of action, as he has done so many times in the past. Instead I received another note from a guard who rode ahead. Daniel wasn’t in the manor and no one has been able to locate him.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “Can you say something on his behalf?”
She looked down at her hands. “He did receive a message,” she said softly. “From Lord Shroud. Surely he has told you that our southern holdings are failing. Floods have ruined most of the crop and we need more farmhands than we have to salvage what we’ll need for winter. My husband was negotiating with Lord Shroud for the loan of some hands. You know how Shroud can be with negotiations. But there must have been some fresh disaster down south. Why else would such a message be sent?”
“But you also understand,” Philip interrupted her. “On the very night our city is attacked by an arsonist, your husband very quickly and very quietly disappears. I do not believe that he is guilty,” he added quickly. “But the Falconer is in charge of the city’s security, and if he has reason to question someone, they probably know something that will be of help.”
Eva’s mouth was set in a thin line and her hands were clasped so tightly in her lap that they were turning pale.
“You are invited to stay here tonight as guests,” Philip said. “Nothing you need will be withheld from you. The matter will be resumed in the morning, with the Falconer present. I am sure that Jonathan will be more than willing to escort you to your suite.” He nodded briefly to each of them, then turned back to the paper he had been scrutinizing before they had arrived. His dismissal was evident. Both Eva and Kate curtsied to him, then waited for Jonathan to pass them and open the door.
He seemed quiet – almost embarrassed – as he led them away from the office and further into the twisting hallways of the palace. They walked for some minutes in an awkward silence. Jonathan offered no pleasantries, and Eva did not seem to desire them. They ascended another flight of stairs and emerged into a broad hall lined with a few large oak doors.
Jonathan pulled a silver key from his pocket and approached the nearest door. Unlocking it, he turned to them. “I hope you find the suite suitable to your needs. Should you require anything you may ring for a servant.”
“Go on, Kate,” Eva said softly. Her daughter quickly curtsied, then slipped through the door into the rich quarters beyond. But Eva made no move to follow her. She stood with her hands folded, gaze fixed boldly on Jonathan. He could not return it. He looked steadily at the floor and drew in breath several times, as though preparing to speak, but exhaled it in a sigh each time.
At last he found his words: “It wasn’t my idea.”
“He is your best friend,” she said in an iron voice. Her fingernails bit into her arms. “How could you be so quick to suspect him? To allow his arrest?”
“You heard my brother, there was little choice in the matter. The Falconer had evidence and he wished to pursue it.” His eyes lifted from the floor and settled on her.
“Your lapdog attacks first and asks questions after. We have been humiliated. How long do you think it will take for word to get out that we were arrested? It doesn’t matter that you call us guests and it will not matter if we are released tomorrow. The damage was done the moment the prison carriage pulled into our drive.”
“The Falconer has very good instincts,” Jonathan mumbled.
“Not this time,” she hissed.
“Of course I don’t believe that it’s true,” he said in an almost supplicating voice. “But the initial evidence is strongly against him. We thought that summoning him would both appease the Falconer and give us time to root out the culprit.” His eyes seemed to plead some kind of forgiveness, or at least understanding.
Eva pushed on the door to the suite. Before entering, she turned to him one last time. “Had he been in your place and you in his, he would never have allowed something like this to happen. Never. He would have opposed it to the very last.” Without bidding him good night, without curtsying or even acknowledging an end to their conversation, she disappeared into the suite and slammed the door. Jonathan was left speechless and motionless on the other side, in a torment of uncertainty and self-loathing.
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