Chapter Five

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Workers didn't stare at royalty.

It was a principle that had been drilled into my head time and time again. Every time an affluent family passed through Metsuva — a rare and astonishing occurrence — Lyra would tug on my ear, turning me away from the brilliance of the nobles as if it could blind me. Laying eyes upon them, she would remind me punctually, is like laying your hands on them. Do you like hands being laid on you?

The parallelism usually fell through and I ended up taking a peek, anyway. Yet those were different times; now, in the throne room of Keiha palace, I was staring at a noble with a brooch pinned on his shirt — and he was staring right back at me.

Unease crawled in my stomach, laced with a taste of horror. Despite the shortage of grace in my system I attempted a quick bow, which looked more like a cramp than anything else. The man didn't bat a lash.

He was wearing that frown again, that puzzled grimace that didn't emit much anger at all. There was something forlorn about his narrowed eyes, a nostalgia that a man worthy of the imperial brooch couldn't have much reasoning for. The longer I regarded him, the more colors I found swirling in the irises of his eyes. Umber for sorrow, copper for days long gone, and mahogany, for hurt that his eyes could carry but his mouth could not speak.

I knew that emotion. I had noticed in the eyes of countless workers in Metsuva, even in my own reflection on the soapy waters of the factory. It was raw heartbreak.

Without waiting to think it through, I turned on my heel grabbed the knob once more. I needn't see more of the grief that raged within my own heart; I was familiar enough with it already.

"I know your plan."

I begged my hands to keep pushing. The muscles of my arm twitched, conflicting messages bombarding them from all angles. At last, I lost the battle. My limbs froze, trapped by the curiosity poking at my mind. "What plan?" I asked, and a frightful waver curled my tone. He can't know. My gaze met his as I turned my head to face him.

The boy's lips tightened for a brief second, frigid and even hesitant as he spoke. "Do not try to feign ignorance, Lady Yumi," he shot, and his words contained a certainty his mournful eyes didn't. "Nobody travelling with a Khanian diplomat can hide their insincerity well enough."

I rubbed my hands against my forearms, feeling a torturous confusion creep into my mind. What were the chances he somehow knew of Erhan's scheme? I doubted he would still stand before me with such reluctance if he did. His jade pin could order the death of a whole fleet in seconds; a peasant assisting an enchanter usually made no exception.

He swallowed down what seemed to be hesitance. "I know what he is here for. And whatever your involvement is, let him know he will not be having it."

At this moment, I knew we were not referring to the same deceit. My participation was more than integral in Erhan's mission. Swallowing down any more remarks, I took a deep breath and glanced at him. "Please help me open this door."

When his disbelieving eyes narrowed, I thought he would leave me there forever as I attempted to decode the bizarre mechanisms of Sehira. Yet his nobility took over, at last, and he reached out pull the door open. Shame warmed my face.

"You are not the cause of trouble, Lady Yumi," he said, a little more softly than he yelled at me before. "You are just the means."

The soft click of the door's closure behind me left me in deafening silence.

Compared to the incessant buzz of the throne room, the wide corridor laying behind it was eerily still. I could hear my own uneven breath as I took slow steps into the hallway. Even such an insignificant room was lavishly adorned with glass and gold, and paintings of stuck-up nobles hung from the walls.

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