Chapter Four

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The stone trail crunched with the dirt beneath my shoes as a guard lead us through the endless garden. Birds flapped away from our path, their black eyes filled with revulsion at the sight of my filthy attire. My muggy apron had given up trying to look ironed; all my clothes had decided crumply and two shades darker than intended was acceptable for the royal court.

I brushed my fingers across my skirt one last time. "Well?" I prodded, my hushed voice wavering.

"Could you will your intrusiveness to sleep?" Erhan muttered, and his tone retained its mellow appeal.

Sighing a nervous breath, I glanced at the guard leading the way. Her steps were mechanical and her silky white uniform lay frigid. "I don't know what to do. I— What am I supposed to say?"

He laughed over the redstarts' light chirping. "I am afraid you have lost your chance to jump out of the coach, my dear Miyu." I glared at him as he reached his hand out to brush a passing bush's feathers. "Say nothing. You appear much more delightful that way, anyway."

I wrapped my hands around my torso, struggling to inspire comfort in my shaking body. Silence was always my first choice of response; a cloth washer needn't say much. Yet a spark of stubbornness flickered inside me, kindled by the knowledge that I was free of my status's shackles. I walked the verdant path to the emperor's summer palace now — I was worth being heard.

Besides, how was I supposed to steal a noble's soul with my mouth zipped shut? The thought sent my head into a spin, green and red and yellow blending into a nauseating mess that no longer resembled the garden we were crossing.

At last, the palace's entrance came into view, the gateway to Ashaba finest scholars and strategists. Like the books stashed under my mattress pertinently pointed to, there was no grand entrance that some poor guards had to haul open every time a guest arrived. The front of the palace was covered in tall archways, the inside of which was molded into a honeycomb pattern. Myriads of symmetric shapes were painted on the sturdy stone walls, gold and sapphire and white glinting in the rich sunlight.

The moment my slipper touched the first step, a jolt of fear ran through my limbs. I thought I had come to terms with my fate in the ship, where infinite time for accepting my impending doom was provided to me. Yet as the aristocrats' curious eyes pulled me up another step, dread begun solidifying in my mind. My head whirled, my eyes fluttered.

A grip seized my elbow. Erhan appeared beside me, his eyes burning into mine with looming bitterness. His calculated tranquility hadn't shattered yet, but its demise seemed to poke at it persistently. "Get a grip," he muttered.

"I'm trying," I mumbled, my breath softly shuddering. My chest boomed with the stomping of my heart and adrenaline poured through my body, begging me to move, to take another step.

Erhan looped his elbow around my own, his lips tight. "Do not forget what your failure entails."

Dryness shrouded my mouth. My limbs felt paralyzed as Erhan hauled us both up the stairs, and my heart was all but consoled. A weak voice in my head prompted me to shake off his grip, to stand on my own two legs. But fear had numbed the logical part of my brain, too. I felt like a pitiful ragdoll, taken to be burned with the rest of the garbage.

After a torturous minute, we were leveled with the extravagantly attired nobles. I felt asphyxiated by a very lavish and shiny pillow as I scanned the crowd. Most women wore a combination of tulle and heavy silk, with flowers or vines or any other expensive-looking pattern twirling across areas best concealed. The men were dressed with an abundance of silk also, yet velvet took the place of the tulle in their attires. Gold was everywhere; in their cuffs, stitched across their coats, laced through their hair. Their blinding shine paired with the generous palette of colors utilized made the clothes I used to wash look like rags.

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