Princess Teressa gazed past her horse’s ears at the city gate, hoping to see a short figure with thick braids sitting on a battlement and swinging her feet. Cold rain stung her face, but she ignored it until disappointment made her drop her head. All she saw were the customary sentries, alert at their posts despite the weather.
Wren had to still be visiting her aunt up north in Allat Los. Teressa tried to banish the sharp sense of disappointment. She’d known her best friend’s visit was to last the month that the Cantirmoor School of Magic was closed down, but still she’d hoped that some kind of miracle would bring Wren back. During the last half a year, ever since Teressa had begun going out on diplomatic missions, she’d always returned to find Wren sitting atop the gate, waiting for her.
Not that I have anything good to tell you this time, Teressa thought wearily. She tried to straighten her aching back as she and her escort cantered their tired horses up the cobbled streets.
It hurt to see how silent the streets were. The rare pedestrians hurried, glancing uneasily over their shoulders, as the gloom deepened toward night. She pushed her anonymous black cloak aside so that her gown was visible. Though she was muddy to the waist and her long braided hair dripped rain like a rat’s tail, she was still the Princess, and she knew that eyes behind shutters and casements watched. A year ago — even last season — folk would have been coming out despite the weather, to wave and cheer as she and her detachment of Scarlet Guard dashed by.
Not now. There had been too much trouble in her father’s kingdom. So we try to reassure people with our purposeful faces, so that they’ll know Father Is Doing Something About It, Teressa thought with bleak humor.I just wish we really could do something.
They clattered into the main courtyard, and stable hands ran out, torches hissing and streaming.
Two approached Teressa, a tall blond boy she recognized and a girl she didn’t. The girl carried a golden cup in both hands.
“Welcome home, Your Highness,” the boy said, bowing. “Thanks … Alif, isn’t it?” Teressa dismounted carefully.
Pins and needles stabbed her legs.
She leaned against the horse. The girl stepped close, holding out her cup. “Something warm to drink?”
Teressa gladly accepted it. Apple and cinnamon-scented steam rose from the cup, and she drank deeply. A bitter undertaste made her tongue tingle, but she ignored it, glad of the cider’s warmth.
“Ah,” she said, lowering the cup. Torchlight played over the beautiful shape. On its side Teressa saw the expected four stars, the symbol used by Meldrith’s four royal families. But below the stars, instead of the Rhisadel crowned sun, there was an engraving of a bird in flight. Surprise made Teressa look up, but before she could ask about it, the girl took the cup from her hands.
“Thank you,” Teressa said, then she glanced around for the crowd of servants who usually appeared when she arrived home. “Where’s Fleris? Or Tamny and the others?”
“Most of them are on errands. Duke Fortian’s orders,” Alif said. “He also said that you’re to go to the Rose Room. Hot food is coming.”
But I want to see my parents first. Teressa almost said it, but didn’t. She never argued with servants. They were obeying orders. So she thanked Alif again, then shivered.
Though the cider had warmed her insides, her outside felt colder than before.
“We can go with you,” Alif offered, moving to one side of her.
Teressa laughed. “After three years, I do know my way around the palace — ”
A man’s voice echoed from the torchlit main entrance across the courtyard, angry even when drawling in courtly accents, “Where is everyone? Where’s the Steward? Find Helmburi!” Teressa recognized her uncle Fortian Rhismordith, and from the sound of it, he was in a worse mood than usual.
Teressa caught a quick glance between Alif and the girl. She said quickly, “You don’t have to go with me if you’ve got other orders. But first, please take care of that poor horse. I can get to the Rose Room on my own.”
The girl went one way and Alif threw Teressa a grateful smile as he took the horse.
Picking up her soggy skirts, Teressa hurried, not to the main entrance, but to a side door seldom used by any but servants.
Inside was warmth, and light. No one was about, though she heard someone’s voice echo from the stairs above: “Hurry! Hurry!”
Teressa moved toward the door opening onto the main hallway, wondering if there were some kind of Court function going on. The Rose Room was not far, but she hesitated, then shook her head.
I’ll go after I see Mother and Father, she decided. They’ll understand. The prospect of seeing her parents lifted her spirits, but her limbs felt heavy. She yawned, her eyes stinging and the room shifting subtly around her, a little like a treehouse platform swayed in the wind. Teressa yawned again, reminded of Wren, and the old days at Three Groves Orphanage . . . Wren’s plays…
She found her eyelids drifting down. Odd! Before I climb all those stairs, I’ll just rest a moment.
She saw an unoccupied alcove and turned in to it, sinking down gratefully, wet clothes and all.
She had every reason to be tired. Although she had a splendid carriage, well-appointed with every comfort, she and her honor guard had felt it safest to send the carriage one way, as a kind of decoy, while they rode cross-country on a faster route, Teressa swathed in a plain black cloak. The Scarlet Guards were the very best of Meldrith’s warriors, and they rode fast and hard. It had been a matter of pride to Teressa to keep their pace — if they slowed it was not to be on her account. Today’s ride had begun at dawn, with only two stops to change horses.
Teressa rested her forehead on her knees as she tried to gather her vanishing strength. She thought of her parents, waiting upstairs for her in the Royal Wing. As always, her mother would have hot chocolate ready for her, even if she’d had to order fresh three or four times. And later, she’d play her lute and sing all Teressa’s favorite songs — the old folk songs that Teressa and Wren had sung at the orphanage where Teressa had been hidden for twelve years.
And her father would grab her in a bear hug and whisper, “I’m proud of my girl,” even if her trip had not been completely successful.
Or a disaster, like this one was, she thought, wincing.
She’d traveled through the northern provinces, listening to bitter complaints about how bad the roads were, how bold the brigands, and how trade was not being protected — yet how Duke Fortian had enough tax money to add a new wing to his palace.
My uncle has hurt the entire kingdom with the way he rules his province. I know Father is not supposed to interfere, but something must be done. If I’m alone with Mother and Father I can tell them everything I saw. She smiled a little. And then we’ll eat some supper, and maybe Tyron can come visit — or Connor will have gotten back from border duty. And one of them is sure to have heard from Wren.
Besides Wren, Tyron and Connor were her closest friends, one the heir to King’s Magician Halfrid, and the other a royal connection from Siradayel — on the family tree a half uncle, but he felt like a distant cousin.
Thinking about Connor cheered her a bit. She knew it was wrong to favor anyone at Court, especially nowadays, but she liked him the best of all her relatives. However, she was careful to keep her feeling strictly to herself.
Her uncle Fortian’s sharp, commanding voice echoed from the main hallway and pierced the fog of sleep closing around her: “The Princess — where is she?”
“We haven’t seen her, Your Grace,” a frightened servant answered. “Perhaps she went to the Magic School to see her friend?”
“Send someone over there,” the Duke ordered.
Alarm banished the tiredness enough to enable Teressa to get to her feet. She knew it was cowardly — she should stand up and say Here I am — but she was too tired to face him just now.
Luckily, she knew just where to go to stay out of everyone’s sight. On one of Wren’s first visits to the palace, they’d explored all the rooms, from the ancient ones built six hundred years ago to the more modern ones. And then Wren had smacked her hands together. “Now we find the secret passageways,” she’d said.
Her father had showed them their first one, but afterward it became a game: Every time Wren stayed at the palace, they had to find a new one. As a result, Teressa knew a secret way to get from just about any portion of the palace to another. A passage to the Royal Suite was just ahead.
She hurried into a narrow hallway, looking both ways to be sure she was alone. Then she pressed the carved berries in a wood panel. A small door silently swung out. Ducking in, she closed the door behind her, glad to find that the glow-globe that Wren had made still gave off blurry light.
“Mine only seem to last a few months,” Wren had said in disgust. “When I think of the Iyon Daiyin making glow-globes that last centuries, I wonder if I’ll ever be a good magician.”
“Good enough for me,” Teressa said softly now, touching the globe. “Oh, Wren, how I miss you.” Gathering her heavy skirts in both hands, she started up the long, steep flight of stairs to the top of the passage.
It seemed to take forever. The last dozen steps were the hardest. She had to grit her teeth, forcing her trembling legs to move. When she reached the landing she blinked, but her blurry vision would not clear. Sitting down abruptly on the top step, she leaned against the cold stone wall.
I’d better rest a moment, she thought, closing her eyes. She wished she’d eaten that hard bread that someone had offered her when they’d first stopped that morning. But she hadn’t been hungry then.
It felt good to have her eyes shut. It also felt good not to have to move. Her arms and legs seemed suddenly as heavy as the chilly stone around her. Sighing, she sank back, and…
. . . jerked awake.
Her skull pounded in the rhythm of her heartbeat. Her mouth was dry and tasted bitter. She lifted a hand to rub her temple, stopping when her damp, clammy clothing sent cold chills through her. She felt worse now than she had right after that long ride.
She pulled her legs under her and rose to her knees. As her hand fumbled against the wall, one of her rings scraped the stone, the sound making her shudder.
“Come on, Tess,” she said out loud. “Sooner you get up there, sooner you take these nasty clothes off and have something to eat.”
‘Tess’ was the name Wren had used when they were together in the orphanage. Her father didn’t like hearing it, but when Teressa’s mother had declared that Wren — having rescued their daughter — should be able to use it as long as she wished, he had agreed.
Teressa loved being ‘Tess’ to Wren, and she also loved being Princess Teressa for her parents. But when she was alone, and needed a boost, she secretly called herself Tess.
She got to her feet, her head aching fiercely. Her necklace swung out and back, the heavy rubies banging against her collarbone. Fighting an urge to rip all her jewelry off and fling it away, she trod heavily to the next passage and started up the stairs.
Well, all the jewelry except her ring. She fingered it as she trod upward. She’d begun wearing jewelry only to keep attention away from the summons ring that Tyron had fashioned for her.
Not even her parents knew about it. The summons rings were part of a pact that the four friends — Wren, Tyron, Teressa, and Connor — had made last year, after the troubles besetting the kingdom had begun in earnest.
She finally reached the top step. Why did she feel so ill? It had to be from her chilly, wet clothes, after that long ride. But that didn’t explain the dizziness. She leaned against the wall, eyes closed until the world stopped spinning.
Then she laid her hand on the door that led into the private sitting room. It was a place the King and Queen and Teressa retreated to when they wanted to be alone. On the other side the door was set into a wall painting. Would her parents be startled to see the painting open up and Teressa pop out? She sprang the catch, the door swung open — and she stepped into an empty room.
The lamps were flickering, as though someone had just moved out. Teressa sniffed. The delicious smell of chocolate wafted from the silver service on the main table, but Teressa could also smell her mother’s scent.
“They must have gone out the door as I came in,” Teressa whispered.
Then she heard noises out in the hallway. Shouts. And the scrape and ring of steel.
Forgetting her tiredness, aches, and hunger, she ran to the door.
Before her feet lay a groaning servingwoman, crimson splashed across her gray dress. And at the far end of the hallway were Teressa’s parents, the King fighting with only a short knife against five or six sword-bearing warriors. Teressa recognized the warriors’ gray livery. She’d seen it every day when she had been a prisoner in Andreus’s kingdom, Senna Lirwan.
Teressa took a step into the hallway just as the King gave a shout and fell under three slashing swords.
Teressa froze, her mouth open, but no sound came out. As she watched in horror, her mother backed protectively against the fallen King, snatched a lamp off a ledge, and slung it at the attackers. Streams of burning oil splashed over them, and they howled in rage.
But then her mother saw her and shouted, “Run, child!”
The enemy leader pointed a red-streaked sword at Teressa. From the other end of the hall thundered booted feet. Teressa gasped in relief — it was her father’s Steward, Helmburi, at the head of a contingent of palace guards.
“Help us!” she shouted, then ducked into the sitting room to grab a candlestick.
She started to run to her mother, but the Queen clutched her side and fell, giving a terrible choked cry.
“Noooo!” Teressa screamed, and threw the candlestick with all her strength at the man with the crimsoned sword standing over the Queen.
Teressa was seized from behind. She had one last glimpse of the hallway, where flames licked at a tapestry. In their pitiless light she saw the still forms of her parents, her mother’s arms flung over her husband, her eyes gazing beyond Teressa.
Then the wet, heavy folds of her own cloak covered her head, and though she fought with all her might, she was borne off her feet and carried quickly in another direction.
She fought and kicked and screamed until she was set on her feet. Clawing the cloak away from her head, she gazed at Steward Helmburi. His long face looked even longer, mottled with effort and grief and anger.
For a moment they stood there, both breathing heavily as they stared at each other in the steady glow of Wren’s witch-light. She became aware of her surroundings. It was the secret passage where she had fallen asleep.
Teressa’s throat ached. “Why did you grab me like that?”
“To save you. King’s orders, in case…” Helmburi’s throat worked. “It’s Andreus. He has attacked Cantirmoor.”
Teressa opened her mouth to order him to take her back to her fallen parents — to attack Andreas — to change time, and bring back the world of order and love that still felt so new.
But instead, the stone walls around her grayed into blackness.