As told from the alternating perspectives of a conqueror’s son and a conquered lord’s daughter, THE EMPIRE’S ORPHANS follows two twelve-year-olds in a country simmering with national, racial, and class tension. (For a full synopsis, click here.)
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I didn’t see my mother’s murder. I heard it.
Three nights earlier Mother had woken me up with a hand on my arm.
“Rogan,” she whispered. “Get dressed.”
I sat up, alert in an instant with the back of my neck prickling. My room was still dark. The last time anyone had woken me before dawn an insane lord had just set fire to our southern palace. “What is it? What’s happened?”
My mother shook her head, swinging her chestnut braid back and forth as she tossed me my roughest kurta. “Get up. Quickly. We need to go.”
I obeyed, trying to hide my shaking fingers. I didn’t smell smoke yet. I glanced at the windows, half-expecting to see assassins outside the walls. “Is it the Solinski? Are they attacking?”
“Just hurry. You’ll need your coat.”
The sound of the door opening made us both jump.
“Etain,” my mother sighed in relief. My twin stepped inside uncertainly, her eyes so wide and frightened she looked nearer to ten than twelve. A crease from her pillow marred one cheek. My mother’s maid Rowena followed her carrying two cloth packs.
“I brought it all, Your Majesty,” Rowena murmured. “And an old cloak of mine to cover what you have on now.”
“Rogan, Etain, I want you to keep your eyes down as we leave. Don’t speak to anyone, even if you know them, understand? And take your jewelry off. We don’t want to look like royalty today.”
An explosion from the center of Lonik lit the sky in the Solinski colors of green and silver. I heard footsteps running underneath us. The four of us all flinched closer together.
“Are they inside the palace already?” I asked.
“The guards?” my mother asked Rowena. “Are they—?”
“Asleep. At the east entrance at least. Along with most of the servants.”
“Poison?” Etain murmured, and I swore. We were so tightly shoulder-to-shoulder now that I could feel her heart beating.
“All right. We need to move now. Here,” my mother held out half of the jewelry we’d stripped off to Rowena. “In case you need bribes.”
“Cheating’s the only way they fight,” I muttered, following on my mother’s heels out of the room. “You’d think they’d know they’re beaten by now. Father will kill them all.”
My mother spun to face me, her face tight and fiercer than I’d ever seen it. “Don’t…” She swallowed. “You’re half Solinski, Rogan. Don’t forget that.”
She spun again and doubled her pace before I could answer.
“Why can’t you think for three seconds before you talk?” Etain asked me softly. “You know she’s Solinski too.”
I didn’t waste my breath explaining that my mother was nothing like the other Solinski, pink skin or not. She’d married my father to make peace with Kanrine, ending our third War of Expansion. It was the other Solinski, rebelling when I was two, and attempting to kill my father twice, and rioting nearly every year in one of their cities or another, who ruined it all. My mother wasn’t one of the petty tradesmen in Lonik’s northern quarter, or a pitiful noble clinging to his gold, or an island peasant. She was smarter than them. She was Kanrian now, even if she was pink-skinned and spoke Solinski with Etain and me. And she wasn’t attacking our northern palace.
Another explosion of green light from the city, as bright and loud as fireworks, made me jump again. I wondered how the Solinski had gotten their hands on our black powder, and how many of them there were. It had to be more than a sudden riot for them to have poisoned the guards and servants.
“Fire!” A woman screamed from somewhere above me. “Fire!”
My mother and Rowena looked at each other, nodded, and ran the last few steps out of the servants’ entrance.
“Here, boots, you’ll need them,” Rowena said, tossing a plain, ill-cut pair to each of us. The garden around us was eerily deserted. Even the guards that should have been there had disappeared.
I could definitely smell smoke now. More people in the palace behind us started to scream.
“Etain, I want you to go with Rowena now,” my mother said, bending to kiss my sister’s head. “She’ll get you out the gate and we’ll meet you at the dock. Rogan, come with me. ”
“Why can’t Etain just—”
“Everyone knows you’re twins, and two people get less notice than four. Now don’t argue.” My mother kissed Etain’s head again. “All right? Everything will be fine. I’ll see you soon. Rogan, come with me.”
Servants began running out of the door behind us, screaming and jostling by without bothering to stop for shoes at all. Across the garden noble men and women ran for the city in their nightclothes, shouting for the soldiers and fire mages. No one looked back at us. I grabbed Etain’s hand quickly, desperately, and then my mother and I joined the crowd of people running past the sleeping guards at the gates.
The crowd of us fleeing the palace scattered when we reached the streets of Lonik proper, some east toward the army barracks and others west toward the Gan River and away from the green explosions. My mother pulled me west, ignoring the questions shouted down to us from the commoners stirring in their homes. I could hear musket shots behind us, but she pulled me too quickly to see what happened.
At the river, my mother led me to a dingy fishing boat. I halted midstride at the sight of the man beside it—a coarsely clothed, pink-skinned, bearded Solinski, but my mother walked up right in front of him without a moment’s hesitation.
He bowed. “Your Majesty.”
“Thank you for meeting us. Any trouble?” My mother asked.
He shook his head. “No, my lady. We can leave as soon as you’re aboard.”
“We’re leaving? With him?” I asked.
“We’ll be safer away from the palace,” my mother explained, moving her hand to my shoulder. “We’ll leave as soon as Etain and Rowena get here.”
“What about Father?” I asked. “And Adesh?” I hadn’t seen my father or my older brother in the people running from the palace. And the palace had been burning.
The fisherman looked sharply at my mother, and she frowned at me. My stomach tightened with sudden horror. “Are they…did they already—”
“No no, they’ll be fine,” my mother hesitated. “His Majesty is probably with the army by now. And he’ll want Adesh with him. They’ll go south if they need to. This boat—it’s just for us.”
The nervous speed of her voice, and the way her eyes darted from me to the streets behind me, worried me even more. She was lying about something.
“You saw them before we left?”
“They were in perfect health last night. And they’ll be fine, I promise you. But we need to leave Lonik right away.”
“On a fishing boat?” I hated fish, and the boat stank of it.
My mother pushed me gently forward, then shook the fisherman’s hand. I stared.
“I’d like to spell your boat,” she said. “To try to attract less notice.”
The fisherman nodded. “The safer the better, my lady. You’ve learned high magic?”
My mother nodded. “Not as well as the palace mages, but I know more than I did before. And my son is learning it. Rogan, help me please.”
“To hide the boat? I can’t do invisibility spells.”
“Just to camouflage it. Make it look older. We don’t want everyone knowing where to find the royal family.”
I was positive that no Solinski rebels would look for us in a Solinski fishing boat—they were sure to search in a Kanrian ship—but I didn’t argue. She was really being very clever hiding us this way. Or at least, it was clever so long as the Solinski fisherman was loyal. I wondered when she’d had the chance to make this escape plan with him. Or if it had been my father who’d thought of it. Had he been worried about an attack when he decided to meet with his northern lords? Why had no one told me about a boat to meet if something went wrong?
I felt the tingle of magic at work as my mother began a version of the illusion spell I was just learning to put into practice. As I watched, one sail dulled in color and shrank, with a new patch appearing in its center. Mother was a better mage than I’d thought. I’d never seen her do more than light a candle.
I called up my own magic and focused hard on the symbols of a dull brown color that would make the hull look a little older, with faded paint. I knew the symbols, had studied them for years, but casting spells was something I’d only been allowed to do in the last few months. Channeling magic and holding the symbols in your mind that would shape a spell took more focus and stamina than my tutors thought children under twelve could manage at all. It was also, they had solemnly sworn to me year after year, dangerous to take on spells beyond a mage’s strength and training, and children couldn’t know their own limits. My tutors would have wanted to be here supervising me doing any sort of spell, if the circumstances weren’t so urgent.
For myself, I was starting to think my current magic tutor, Master Oza, just couldn’t feel quite as self-important if he saw anyone other than him doing spell-work. He’d want to be the one to put the fire in the palace out—he was probably the only one who could stop a fire in full force. I hoped he’d managed it already.
My illusion wobbled a bit as I thought of the palace, and then again as another explosion lit the sky. I focused harder on the symbols for color, shade, texture, and shape, then traced them out on the railing with a bit of chalk my mother pressed into my hand to tie the spell off. It would have been better to add some chips in the paint, but the illusion worked well enough. Between the spells on the hull and the sails the boat looked ten years older, and manned by someone twice as poor.
“How long will the spell last?” the fisherman asked, looking over the side of his boat.
“The rest of the day,” I said, turning back to the dock to watch for Etain. I wished my mother hadn’t made us come separately. She and Rowena ought to have been right behind us. “This is high magic, not Solinski nature tricks.” Solinski blood magic was good for plants and a few weather tricks they’d used in the war to sabotage Kanrian squadrons, nothing else. Mages in the Kanrian Empire and Allodire had spent centuries discovering the symbols of power needed to use high magic, but Solinski didn’t have that kind of discipline. All they’d managed to do was steal a few of our spells.
The man glanced at me sharply, then bowed. “As you say, Your Highness.”
“Rogan, crouch down, don’t let anyone on shore see you,” my mother ordered. After I obeyed, bracing myself behind the boat’s short railing, she knelt beside me and added, “Those nature tricks can be very useful. And you can’t fault people for not being allowed to learn any other magic.” She put a hand to my shoulder and her mouth closer to my ear. “Be polite. We need his help.” She frowned at the fisherman, who was still staring across the docks toward the city. “Do you see anyone? They should be here by now.”
On my mother’s words, he nodded. A pair of running footsteps approached us across the dock, and the Solinski man handed Rowena onto the boat. Alone. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“My lady, I’m so sorry,” she said, crouching down to our height.
“What happened? Where’s Etain?”
“One of the soldiers, he recognized her. He said he’d take her to the barracks.”
“A Solinski soldier took her?” I asked.
“No…” Rowena murmured uncertainly, glancing at me briefly before turning to my mother again. “I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I argued, he’d take me in. And if I said I was bringing her to you, he’d follow. I couldn’t think of how… I’m so sorry, my lady. I’ve ruined it all.”
“No…no, it’s not your fault,” my mother whispered. She gripped the railing above her head, breathing shakily. “I always knew it was a small chance. Even with so much help… it always was impossible. I knew. I just hoped…if we dressed carefully, if the twins went separately…” she sniffed.
Rowena touched my mother’s elbow. “We can go back. If you want. Say we panicked and ran—who would question it?”
My mother closed her eyes and swallowed. Then she shook her head. “No. We came this far. We keep going.” She turned to the fisherman. “There’s room for us below deck? We should cast off. Immediately.”
“Yes, my lady. Right this way.”
“We’re leaving Etain behind? We can’t!” I protested. “They’ll kill her.”
My mother flinched. “No, she’ll be quite safe.”
“But whoever’s attacking—”
“She’s with Kanrian soldiers, Your Highness,” Rowena said. “She’ll be safe with them.”
“There’s no time. Come with me below deck. Right now.” My mother closed her hand over my upper arm and pulled me along with her after the fisherman.
“It was a Kanrian soldier who took Etain?” I asked Rowena once we’d settled ourselves into the cramped space the fisherman showed us. “Then why didn’t you lead him to us? Or tell him she was being evacuated?”
My mother closed her eyes. The boat began to move. “It’s not that simple, Rogan. Etain is safe. No one will hurt her. But we need…for us, it’s safer to leave Lonik. Evacuate.”
“How do you know? Who was it attacking us?”
She hesitated. “There was no attack.”
I stared at her. “But the fire! The explosions!”
She shook her head. “Just distractions. Not meant to hurt anyone.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. The fire started in a bedroom no one is using, and there was very little fuel for it burn with.”
“But how would you know that?”
When she didn’t answer, I thought about it for a minute. There was only one way she could be so sure. “You set it?”
“To help us leave. No one was meant to be hurt. The mages were sure to put it out soon. It’s…” she rubbed her face. “It’s that important to me that we leave today. It’s hard to explain. You can’t understand yet. But you will in time. I promise.”
“What can’t I understand? You’re just not explaining anything.”
She shook her head. “It’s too soon. I know you’re worried, I know you’re confused. But I need you to trust me. You’ll understand soon.”
There was no understanding this. My calm, peaceful, dutiful mother had become an arsonist overnight. She was deathly afraid of something, and it wasn’t Solinski rebels. Was there a traitor in the palace? Why hadn’t she just warned the guards? How was she so sure whoever it was wouldn’t hurt Etain, or Adesh, or my father? She couldn’t possibly be so certain. She was lying, trying to reassure me.
“Where are we going?” I finally asked.
“Across the channel. To my family in Solin.”
We floated along for nearly an hour, past the mouth of the Gan River, and the port at the northern heart of the city, then spent three hours crossing the channel toward Solin’s southern shore. I was cold within twenty minutes. I thought longingly of our home palace in Jalure, far south of here, where it was sure to be truly, wonderfully warm. What Lonik called spring was still cool and damp, and in the boat’s dank, stinking storage space the air was freezing.
I wished Etain were there.
When my mother finally let me back up above deck, I was surprised by how green the land along Solin’s banks looked. I’d always pictured Solin more or less in shades of brown and gray mud, but there were early sprouts of crops rising on the farms I could see, and budding trees, and green and purple hills rising above the farms farther away from me. There was a half-wild prettiness to the land, but we docked at a town just as gray and dreary as I’d imagined Solinski towns would be. None of the Solinski in Kanrine had any appreciation for color. Their clothes and their homes were always drab, and even the nobles I’d seen wore dull colors and only two or three pieces of jewelry at a time. There was nothing of Jalure’s bold red and golds anywhere I looked here, or any sense of grandeur anywhere, even in the temple we passed.
Since my great-grandfather’s time the Kanrian Empire’s expansion had brought advances of culture and learning to its new territories and land and new trade to Kanrine, making the Kanrian Empire greater with every new territory. The island of Solin had useful ports on the way to Allodire, and good mines in the north, but Solinski, it seemed, were particularly slow to learn new advances. Even after my mother married my father and ended the war, the Solinski rebelled the year I was two, wasting Kanrian lives and then giving up in a month. My father hadn’t forgiven them their ingratitude since.
I supposed if it wasn’t the Solinski attacking this morning, but someone else, that made Solinski slightly better by comparison.
From the dock my mother hurried me into a waiting coach that took us over a horridly ill-kept road out of the town, then into a second coach away from the ocean altogether, and then into a third that drove on straight into slowly rolling Solinski farmland. There was nothing to see then but field after field of muddy crops, unbroken by anything like the beautiful twin rivers to Jalure’s east, or the mountains guarding the city to the west. Again and again we changed coaches—my mother didn’t even let us stop for the night, saying a Kanrian boy would draw too much notice in a Solinski inn. I slept in fits and starts, longing for my bed in Jalure and fresh curried chicken that hadn’t spent a day in Rowena’s pack. All night and through the next day, my mother kept one hand in Rowena’s and the other on my shoulder, sometimes stroking my hair. She and Rowena barely spoke except to tell me when to move to the next coach.
“How will we know when it’s safe to go back?” I asked finally.
My mother hesitated. “Someone will be in touch. One of the mages, maybe. But we won’t be going back right away.”
“But if Etain and Adesh and Father are there, can’t we just go where they are?”
“No, I told you. We’re safest in Solin. With my family. This is part of your heritage, Rogan. The Solinski are your people. You ought to know more about them. Think of this as the chance to learn.”
I didn’t dignify that with an answer. A flock of sheep had surrounded our coach, and the people who ought to have been herding them had nothing to do with my family’s legacy.
After walking three miles from the tiny village where our last coach stopped, we reached a farmhouse at dusk on the second day, and instead of passing it by Rowena led us up the small path through a yard scattered with chickens. A brown-haired, rounded Solinski woman opened the door to us, her weather-beaten face quickly creasing into a smile as she drew Rowena into a fierce hug.
“All these years and home at last,” she said, wiping a tear off her cheek. “Though I do wish you were here for some other—” she abruptly cleared her throat and curtsied to my mother. “Forgive me, Your Highness.” She bit her lip. “Though I suppose it’s ‘Your Majesty’ now, isn’t it?”
For the first time since we’d left the palace, my mother’s face broke into a real smile. She took the woman’s hands in hers and kissed her cheek. “Merrilyn is fine with me. I can’t thank you enough for this, Maela.”
“Anything I can do, of course.” Maela looked at me, and the gentleness faded from her eyes. “And this is the son you wrote me about?”
My mother frowned at me slightly. “Yes, this is Rogan.”
I gaped at them.
“Rogan, say hello.”
I’d never spoken to a farmer in my life. I nodded at the old woman, refusing to bow. “I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Prince Rajat of Kanrine.”
Maela nodded at me, still frowning. “Named for the old king’s right hand. Set to follow in the Gravemaker’s footsteps, are you?” She turned to my mother. “You did say he was the problem?”
“I call him Rogan,” my mother said. “And he’s a good boy…not so much a problem as…showing he might become one.”
“I’m not a problem. I’m a prince of Kanrine,” I said more loudly. I couldn’t believe my mother was going to insult me in front of this peasant, much less give her the name only she and my siblings used.
Maela sniffed. “Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? But you’re young. There might be time to civilize you yet.” She turned back to my mother. “I’ve some breeches and shirts and a coat set aside for him, to help blend him in a bit. Some dresses, too, for you and the princess. But where is she? You said you were bringing—” She stopped at the expression on Mother’s face.
“We could only get Rogan to the boat,” she said quietly. “And I knew we’d never get another chance.”
My mother closed her eyes. “Don’t. Please. I…can’t. Not now.”
Maela pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, my lady.” She glared back at me. “You best make this worth it, boy.”
I looked between them with exasperation. “Make what…Mother, we’re not staying here, are we? You said we were going to your family.”
“And here we are.”
Rowena cleared her throat. “Maybe we should get supper on the table, Mama.”
“You might circle the house with this first,” my mother said, handing her a bar of purple soap. “I spelled it for dogs, just in case. Break it into pieces and drop them anywhere. Bury them even, if you can.”
They left my mother and me staring at each other.
“You’re not really related to Rowena.” It seemed impossible I wouldn’t have known if my mother’s maid were even a distant cousin. And my mother had been a princess when she married my father to make peace with Kanrine. No royalty, even Solinski royalty, could have lived in a place like this.
My mother closed her eyes and shook her head. “There are bonds beyond blood. You, Etain, and Adesh are all the blood family I have left. Rowena and Maela are another family.”
She wasn’t making any sense. I wanted to shake her. “Why say we were going to your family then? Why come here at all? Why couldn’t we just go with Etain and Adesh? Head south for home—Jalure would be safe!”
My mother brushed my hair back away from my face. “Rogan, you don’t see yourself as Solinski.”
She still wasn’t making sense. Of course I didn’t. “I’m a prince of Kanrine.”
My mother nodded. “Yes. A prince. And a good son, and a kind brother. I don’t want to see you lose that to being the younger son of King Bhanu.”
I shook my head impatiently. “I am the younger son of King Bhanu.”
She bent down to meet my eyes. “Do you trust me?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“I know you don’t understand, but I need you to believe me when I say this is where you need to be. You can learn more about Solin, talk to different kinds of people—you can learn so much here, so much you can’t learn at your father’s palace. You’ll thank me one day. This will be for the best.”
But she was wrong.
Hoof beats sounded on the road after breakfast the next morning. Rowena’s mother looked out the window and dropped the milk pitcher she’d brought in from the barn.
My mother gulped. “I’m so sorry, Maela, I never thought they’d come so soon—”
“Done is done. You need to hide. Boy, come here.” Maela stepped up on a stool and opened a loose board in the ceiling.
“Why?” My heart pounded in answer to the sudden fear in the room, but I still didn’t understand.
“Rogan, please,” my mother said. She gripped my shoulders from behind me. “It’ll be safer up above. Jump up.”
“Rogan, I need you to trust me. Get his legs.” This last was to Maela and Rowena, who immediately seized one of my legs apiece.
I stiffened. My instinct from training was to kick out, to fight, but it would have meant hurting my mother as well, who had wrapped her arms around my thighs. And I was as frightened as I was confused. It was clear that whatever my mother had fled from in Lonik, whatever danger she’d been so frightened of that she’d set fire to the palace, it had followed us here.
The three of them hefted, lifting me until my head was through the hole Maela had opened. I gripped the boards around me and lifted myself the rest of the way, grunting and wriggling on my elbows until I’d managed to crawl completely into the narrow space there. My mother was standing on Maela’s stool with her head poked through the hole by the time I’d turned my head back toward them all.
“But what is it that’s—” I started to ask.
“That’s good. Just lie flat. Lie still,” my mother whispered urgently. “And don’t make a sound. No matter what.” She touched my leg, and purple light flashed. The order became a magical binding. I couldn’t move at all now, not even my mouth to ask how on earth she’d learned magic that advanced, and not my hands to help her as she hoisted herself up into the crawlspace beside me.
“Climb quickly, my lady,” Rowena murmured.
But my mother had only gotten her shoulders up into the crawlspace when the rhythm of hoof beats outside slowed. A man outside shouted orders.
“We’re out of time,” my mother said. She looked over at me with huge, frightened eyes. “I love you. I’m so sorry.” She let herself drop back down through the hole. I saw the floorboard slide into place, and then everything in the crawlspace was dark. All I could do was stare in furious confusion at the space she’d disappeared through.
“My lady, can you do any other spells?” Rowena asked. “Camoufl—”
The cottage door banged open, and a few pairs of footsteps in heavy boots crossed the floorboards.
One of the women underneath me whimpered.
“Good morning, sirs, is there—” Maela started to say, but a man spoke over her.
“Here, Captain!” he called, and more footsteps followed.
After a few moments of clomping around on the wood below another voice asked, “But where’s the prince? He’s not here.”
No one answered, and when they called my name, my mother’s spell kept me silent.
“You two, stay here with me,” a deeper voice said. “The rest of you search the cottage, the barns, the fields, all of it.”
The footsteps scattered, muffling the sound of a few more exchanges among the men below.
“Queen Merrilyn of Kanrine,” the deep-voiced man said when the clatter below faded. “We find you a long way from your palace. Do you understand what has happened?”
“I do, Captain,” my mother said.
“You unlawfully left the royal grounds of Lonik in company with the maid Rowena Kilty,” the deep-voiced man said. I realized now who was speaking. This was Captain Banik, who’d been giving me fencing lessons only three days ago, along with advice on keeping my weight behind my fist with my cousin Idris. “You are suspected of collaborating in a plot that damaged His Majesty’s palace and endangered His Majesty’s guests and soldiers. You have further unlawfully removed Prince Rajat of Kanrine from the presence of His Majesty King Bhanu.”
For a few moments I could only hear the muffled clatter of men in other parts of the cottage, and shaky breathing from underneath me.
“Do you claim you honestly thought you needed to flee this far from a handful of rebels and a minor fire?” Banik finally asked.
“No,” my mother said.
“Do you claim you were forced to leave the palace under duress?”
“No,” my mother repeated. “This was my idea, not Rowena’s. Or Maela’s, either. I made them help me. I take full responsibility for His Majesty’s displeasure.”
“The kidnapping of royalty,” Banik said in low, menacing voice I’d never heard before, “is a treasonous offense.”
He thought they’d kidnapped me. But that wasn’t right, I thought desperately. Not really. Not like Banik was thinking. If I could only get free of the spell, I thought, I could explain. But I still couldn’t move so much as a finger.
“I take full responsibility, Captain,” my mother repeated, her voice slightly shakier. “I understand the consequences.”
Which made no sense. There had been something she made us run from. Some traitor, some would-be assassin, something that frightened her badly. I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t explain it to him.
“This…unfortunate event might still be resolved with a minimum of unpleasantness.” Banik said. “His Majesty is anxious to have his son restored to him, and if you repent, our king may be merciful. Where is the prince? Maid?”
“We sent him away on another boat,” Rowena said.
“You sent him away? What mother wouldn’t keep her child with her?”
“A desperate one,” my mother hissed. “One who couldn’t stand by to see a tyrant corrupt him day by—”
I heard a blow, and a gasp.
“Don’t you dare insult your king,” Banik spat.
I wished I could have shuddered. My mother had never said a word of criticism about my father. And I’d never heard Banik sound so fierce.
Maela started crying while Captain Banik asked more questions. I struggled, but no matter how hard I tried, my hands wouldn’t budge. Neither would my feet. Just lift the spell, I thought at my mother. Just let me get down. I felt sure if I could talk to Banik he would calm down. My mother would stop saying such insane things, we’d go back to the palace, my father would set his punishments if he thought she’d been too drastic in running so far, and it would all be forgotten soon. But I lay there for what felt like hours while the questions went on, and still all three women kept lying about where I was. And I didn’t get a bit closer to countering my mother’s spell.
New boots clicked across the floor.
“We’ve searched the barn, sir,” a third man said. This one I didn’t recognize. “And I have men out in the fields, but the dogs haven’t found a trace of His Highness.”
“Now, you’ve wasted enough of my time and my men’s. The only honest thing we’ve heard is that you sent him somewhere. I want to know where, and I want to know now. We’re through with these games.”
No one answered.
“This treasonous old woman is useless to us,” the captain said slowly. “It’s nothing to me if she dies here.”
“You’re going to execute a farmer because I took my son to a country that’s half his birthright? She has nothing to do with this! This was my doing.”
“She aided the kidnappers of the prince. And we both know your maid just lied to me about the prince being sent to Allodire. This woman means nothing to me, my lady. Nothing. Where is Prince Rajat?”
The sound of Maela’s sobs grew. My heart started pumping so hard in my chest that it hurt.
“Mama, I’m so sorry,” Rowena whispered.
“So be it.” There was a sickening, wet sound, and a cough. Rowena shrieked. I tried again to wriggle free, but my mother’s spell wouldn’t let me even breathe louder. The smell of blood made my stomach roll.
“I hereby arrest you both for the kidnap and possible murder of Prince Rajat,” Banik said over the sound of Rowena’s gasping sobs. “I grant you one last chance now to tell us where he is and better your sentences.”
“We have nothing to say to you murderers,” my mother said in a shaking voice.
There was another pause, and then the sound of more boot steps crossing the floor.
“There is no such thing as murder when treason is involved. There is punishment, as swift as needed to protect the peace. Maid, you will be returned to the palace for further questioning,” Banik said. “By order of His Majesty, King Bhanu, Her Majesty the Queen Merrilyn’s sentence is to be carried out immediately.”
I heard a cry, and a woman’s grunt. Rowena shrieked again, and something thudded. Someone below was panting, gasping while more boots scuffled on the floor. There was another slash of metal on flesh, and then the panting stopped. The spell on me lifted, but I stayed frozen.
“You monsters!” Rowena screamed. “You killed your own queen!”
Killed your own queen. I couldn’t fathom what she meant.
“We killed the kidnapper of our prince. On our king’s orders. Make this better on yourself, now. Where is Prince Rajat?”
Rowena’s breath was coming in wet, labored pants now, and when she spoke her voice was raw. “I will never turn Princess Merrilyn’s son over to you for the king to ruin.”
“You might feel differently after a few hours with the prison guards,” Banik said. “Malik, Doshi, take the queen’s body. Gently. The rest of you stay here and clean up. Put the farm woman’s body in the river. Burn the house. Leave the barn.”
I lay staring at dusty cobwebs while the sounds of boots retreated back out of the farmhouse door. I felt dizzy. I sucked in shallow breaths, fighting to keep my breathing quiet until long after my lungs started to burn. I was free to speak now, free to move, but I didn’t dare to make a sound all the while Banik and his men mounted up and rode away with Rowena in tow.
Killed the queen. On our king’s orders. They’d killed my mother. On my father’s orders.
The sound of guards dragging a body across the floor and out the door roused me a little. Banik had said to burn the house. I had to get out before they came back.
I slid the boards in the trap door aside and carefully lowered myself down to the floor, dropping the last few feet with a thump that made me wince. But no one was around to hear me. The cottage was absolutely still, with the smell of blood twice as heavy around me. I didn’t dare let myself look at the floor. Instead I focused on the ceiling, and on clambering back onto a stool to replace the boards above me. My fingers shook.
I crawled through a window in the back of the house and ran for the woods, away from the narrow river where the soldiers had gone. Once I’d gotten a few hundred yards I found a ditch and flattened myself in it. The field I was in was grassy and too open to run across without being spotted. A few minutes later, I could hear the sound of boots on dirt, and low men’s voices. I shuddered and grasped for my magic, thinking hard on symbols and colors. My hand turned green. It was a solid green that didn’t match the grass around me, but it was green enough not to spot me from a distance, I hoped. I waited, and listened for the sounds of the fire starting, and tried to keep the spell steady. Everything I’d heard in the house repeated again and again in my mind. Every time I thought of my mother, or Banik, or Rowena, or of soldiers hiding Maela’s body in a river, the spell wavered.
However bad my spell, the soldiers didn’t find me. The fire crackled for hours, then faded. The soldiers rode away. By nightfall only the sound of crickets broke the silence on Maela’s land. I stood up. There was no one there, and no houses anywhere in sight around me. I had no idea where I was, and nowhere to go.
I couldn’t go back to the palace, not after today.
My mother was gone. On the king’s orders. And that left me somewhere in Solin, alone.
End of Chapter One