Chapter Thirty-four

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The day dragged on. Distya watched Guardsman after Guardsman file through, their watches getting shorter and shorter. The Coretians probably didn't have too many Guardsmen to spare, Distya thought, not with all the skirmishes breaking out along the border. The ones who came to guard her and Tregan were often red-faced and panting, as though they'd just finished training or come running from some other duty. Those on the night watch had little to do but lean against the door and grumble; in the daytime, the Guardsmen spent every second on edge, waiting for their next orders.

Because of this, most didn't look too closely at who or what they were guarding. Near midday, the guards switched again, the first hurriedly striding off down the hall. The new Guardsman gave the captives in the room a sideways glance as she caught her breath.

Then she paused, turning her full attention inward. Distya raised her head, her eyes half-closed and bleary from the constant dim light. As she did, the Guardsman leaned closer to the barred window and squinted, then sucked in a breath.

"Is that..." she murmured. As another Guardsman passed by, the woman grabbed his arm and said something under her breath. Distya strained to hear but couldn't make out any words.

She had her guesses, though. The second Guardsman peered in and slowly started to nod, his eyes widening. He and the woman conversed back and forth for a moment.

"Wait here," the woman said, just loud enough for Distya to understand. "I think this is worth reporting."

She took off down the hall.

***

Rinnet wandered for a long time before she found a towering set of gilded double-doors she believed to be the throne room. The inner workings of the fortress sprawled in a twisting maze, routes spiraling into dead-ends and doors opening onto staircases that led nowhere. Many doors were locked, and still others looked fancy enough to draw her attention, yet revealed nothing more than other empty rooms like the one she'd waited in.

But the doors she stood before now looked like none other she'd seen. The room beyond lay deep in the fortress — near-impossible to find, Rinnet guessed, unless you had a guide. Or spent close to an hour walking in circles. She almost regretted killing Grimond so early, since he would have led her here himself.

Almost regretted.

There was something odd about the whole thing. As long as Rinnet had searched, she'd never seen another person in the halls. Or the rooms. Or anywhere, for that matter. She'd started out creeping through the halls, keeping low and sliding around corners with the expectation she'd be at sword-point any second. But after several minutes of slinking around, she noticed the strangest thing — it was dead silent. No matter how hard she listened, she couldn't even hear the distant padding of footsteps. Her own rang out like thunderstrikes.

She'd be disappointed if the double-doors led to another empty room. But, as she put her ear to the panels of wood between the gold, her heart fluttered. She heard the faintest rasp of noise, someone breathing, fabric rustling. Curtains swishing.

She opened the doors.

At first, she thought the room was empty after all. The vaulted ceiling soared high overhead, stained glass pouring in a patchwork of multicolored light that painted the stone floor in shades of pastel. The walls, presumably stone as well, were hidden behind enormous woven curtains that draped from ceiling to floor. Some depicted scenes from Coreti, battles and celebrations and images of the countryside.

Rinnet realized with a start she'd let the finery distract her. She dropped her gaze from the intricate curtains and visually tracked the perimeter of the vast room, her sights landing at last on a short set of wide stairs leading to a throne on the raised section of stone.

There, Rinnet saw a Coretian woman. She stood too far away to tell for sure, but she looked small. Frail. Her loose hair showed more gray than red, and the red itself bordered on a dull auburn. The thick folds of her black velvet cloak fell off her pointed shoulders in sharp pleats, disturbed only as she straightened herself in her seat. Rinnet tensed, but kept herself from reaching for a dagger. As of right now, she had every right to be here.

"Have I come to the right place?" Rinnet called across the room.

She flinched as the woman's arm flew up, but it was only to cover her mouth as she coughed. "Step forward," she said, her voice thick with illness. "Are you the girl who escaped from the Tevarians?"

"Yes." Rinnet came closer, her footsteps almost silent on the stones. "Rinnet, of King's Helm."

"King's Helm," the woman muttered. She coughed again, then rasped, "Where is Grimond? He should have brought you here."

Now within twenty feet or so of the throne, Rinnet could see the sunken features of the woman — the queen of Coreti. One faded white scar crossed her forearm, but she looked otherwise untouched by battle. She had the softer and paler face of a noble, the beginnings of wrinkles the only thing to mar her smooth skin. Unlike Rinnet, she had never seen the hardships of commoner life. She'd likely been a Guardsman once, maybe even a powerful one to have taken the throne, but no longer. Her weakness was evident in the way she strained to hold herself upright on the throne.

Killing her would be easierthan Rinnet could have hoped for.

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