I wish it hadn't been so dark. The sky was missing and the winds threatened a storm. I waited outside the palace walls. The winds carried sea spray into my face. I could hear the waves crashing, but nothing else. Beside me, Ti was watchful and alert.
I lay a hand on his arm. "Please don't wait with me."
Ti made a soft indignant noise. Even though it was too dark to see his expression, I knew he was glaring at me.
He'd been in a perpetual state of moodiness ever since I showed him the slip of paper Amon had given me.
South Gate. Midnight.
Ti and I were at the South Gate, where a low tide of water met the base of the palace. It would be midnight soon.
I nudged Ti again. "Go," I insisted.
He stood stubbornly for a moment, then threw his cloak around my shoulders. Brusquely, he turned and left.
I listened to his footsteps disappear. Then, I waited alone in the darkness, with the lapping waters and the faint calls of the patrols who vigilantly walked along the top of the palace walls.
Suddenly, I heard a soft scuffling right above me, along the palace wall. Quickly, I shrank against the wall to avoid being seen. Tensely, I pressed myself to the large stones, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
The scuffling had stopped and I hoped whoever it was had left. Then, out of nowhere, there was a flutter of fabric, a soft "ooph", and something heavy landed right at my feet.
The appearance was so sudden that I screamed before I could stop myself. The heavy object hurriedly picked itself up and launched itself at me. I felt a small, warm hand against my mouth. For a moment, the two of us were tightly pressed together. I couldn't move a muscle.
"Shut up!" a woman's voice hissed into my ear. "I won't hurt you! Shut up, for gods' sakes!"
I clamped my mouth shut. A few moments passed and we were both listening hard for voices above the crashing ocean waves.
The figure in front of me relaxed. "You won't scream again, will you?" she asked in a whisper.
When I shook my head, she pulled her hand away.
"Who are you?" I asked quietly.
She didn't answer me. Instead, I heard the soft tinkling of coins. She passed something cold into my hand. "Listen," she said in the same ferocious hiss, "you never saw me. Don't tell anyone about me. If you do, I'll- I'll slit your throat."
"Wait—Cicario didn't send you here?"
"Cicario?" she asked in obvious confusion, then froze. I did, too. We both heard movement behind the palace wall.
She closed my fist around the handful of coins. "I'll slit your throat," she warned again, but her voice was fast and panicked. Without another word, she fled, sprinting as quickly as she could away from the palace.
I decided to leave, too, to run in the direction Ti had gone. The girl was probably a thief escaping from the palace. It was not a good idea to hang around any longer. I would have to try to find another way to find Cicario.
The South Gates opened before I had a chance to run. A small group of men appeared, carrying torches. There were a few guards among them. The rest were dressed lavishly in court clothes.
I turned and tried to run, but I hadn't gone two steps when I felt someone put their arm forcibly around me. The man possessed a strong arm and chest. I writhed as hard as I could.
"My apologies," his deep voice murmured into my ear.
Something blunt hit the back of my head.
There were footsteps, the sounds of them muffled by soft-soled slippers. There must have been at least three people in the room. Far away, perhaps in another room, I heard sounds of conversation. On instinct, I kept my eyes shut and tried to assess my surroundings.
My head was pounding and the spot in the back was sending out pulses of pain. I was being covered by something very light and soft. My head was on a pillow.
I figured prison couldn't possibly be this comfortable, so I opened my eyes.
I saw white, sheer silk floating above my head. I ignored my headache and turned my head sideways. I was in a bed—a beautiful, large bed with a canopy that fluttered from the night breeze.
Through the gauzy curtains, I saw women walking to and fro, dressed identically in blue. I frowned, recognizing the clothes. They were the uniforms of the palace servants.
One turned around and saw me, started, then hurried quietly out of the room. I sat up quickly in attempt to stop her, but the sudden change of position was not good for my aching head. With a groan, I fell back on the bed.
The other women rushed toward me, parting the curtain and rushing to my aid with a damp cloth.
"Your Highness," they murmured, dabbing my forehead with the cloth. "How do you feel?"
I stared at them, eyes wide. They'd called me your highness. "Who are you?"
"Servants of the duke," one answered, bowing her head.
I furrowed my brows. This was too bizarre. "This may be a strange question, but please answer me," I continued.
The three girls nodded.
"Who am I?" I asked.
Again, they looked at each other. This time, with eyebrows raised. Finally, a pretty, raven-haired servant answered, "You are Evalette, Queen of Mait."
What a strange, fantastic dream, I thought, then grew a little impatient with myself. I needed to wake up. Perhaps, at this very moment, I was bleeding in a prison cell for trespassing the palace grounds.
"Thank you," I answered, then closed my eyes again. If I fell asleep in my dream, would I be back in the real world?
The blanket was comfortable and the bed was soft. I heard the sea outside, crashing in a soothing, consistent rhythm. Slowly, smoothly, I was collapsing back into darkness when I was jolted awake by the sound of a man barking, "Out! Now!"
At last! Reality! I thought cheerfully, but opened my eyes to find myself in the same room. This time, there was a man standing by my bed. He used his hand to part the curtains around my bed.
"You're awake." He was wearing opulent clothes of red. I wondered why he would be dressed this way in the middle of the night.
I sat up slowly, blinking at him. Everything felt too vivid for a dream. "What is happening?" I asked him.
He ran his eyes over me slowly. Then, his blue irises snapped back to my face. "You fainted," he answered, his tone even and measured. "And now, you are awake."
I frowned. The memory of feeling a heavy object hitting the back of my head was fresh on my mind. "No, I…" Again, I frowned. His face looked familiar. He was one of the men outside the South Gate. "That's not how I remember it."
He smiled—or rather, his face twitched. "Really? Tell me what you remember."
"Who are you?" I demanded first.
He bowed, though his mocking blue eyes were fixed on me. "Pryus, the duke of Mait, Your Highness," he introduced. "I am your right hand man."
I sat up slowly, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "I'm not the Queen," I told him. I felt ridiculous for having to explain myself. "I don't really understand what I'm doing here and I didn't particularly enjoy being attacked and dragged into the palace."
I scowled at him to emphasize my displeasure. Perhaps I was insane to be speaking this way to a duke, but I'd never reined my tongue in front of nobility. My experience was Ren and Cicario must have fostered a bad habit.
"I know." Again, he smiled. "You're just some peasant girl, aren't you?"
I was taken aback. I had expected him to be surprised, perhaps even argue with me. However, his calm acceptance only served to confuse me further. "Why am I here?"
He ignored my question and looked at me silently for a moment. I felt as if he were surveying me for quality, checking for cracks and stains. "You look remarkably like her," he murmured. "Everyone was fooled." He shook his head slightly as if in awe. "What is your name?" he asked.
"You never answered my question."
"You see those doors?" he asked, pointing at the tightly sealed wood behind him.
Silently, I nodded.
"There are four guards outside. If I should like, I could have you killed for breaking into the palace and pretending to be the Queen," he told me.
He held out a hand to silence me. "Do you think anyone would believe your words over mine?"
I yanked off my blankets and swung my legs over the bed. Once standing, he wasn't so tall or intimidating. "What do you want?"
"Sit," he answered, lightly pushing me back down. He hesitated, absently twisted a heavy black ring on his finger. "Tell me your name."
"Aliana," I answered grudgingly.
He didn't seem particularly interested in my name once he learned it. "And what do you do?"
"I work in a bookshop right beside the fish market."
He laughed a little at this. "What an occupation," he said scornfully. "What have you seen of the world that makes you so impertinent? Are you not aware you are speaking to nobility?"
I shrugged, the thoughts of my years in Deshret dashing through my head. I knew nobility. I was once the wife of a prince and the mistress of the current King of Deshret. Stripped of clothes, everyone was human, with human imperfections. "Maybe I'm just stupid," I answered carelessly. "Perhaps my narrow, provincial mind doesn't recognize the greatness that you are."
A strange looked passed over him, as if he had made a mistake and was just seeing me for the first time. The look quickly disappeared, replace by the usual impassiveness. "So you're educated," he said dismissively. "I won't ask how. But your daring is not going to serve you well--not here. You must have power to back your courage…but you are just a girl who works near the fish market."
"I suppose," I conceded.
There was silence between us. I watched him, waiting for him to speak.
"You're to stay in the palace," he finally said. "Only for a few weeks." He began to pace back and forth in the room and twisted his ring around and around. "You're not to speak to anyone. And you're to do exactly as I tell you."
"You want me to stay here to be Queen?" I clarified. When he nodded, I laughed. "How would that work? How could that work?"
His gaze swept over me again and I could see him making notes and calculations in his head. "You have her height and her figure." His eyes moved to my face, running over my cheekbones, my jaw, the hallows of my eyes. "The similarities are remarkable."
"You knew I wasn't the Queen. You could tell the difference between us," I pointed out.
"Evalette--the Queen, that is--usually travels with her face modestly veiled. Few courtiers know her distinct features. She is, after all, a new monarch and has barely lived in the capital for a year. No one knows her enough to tell the difference." He spoke so confidently that I could see he'd convinced himself. But the plan sounded ludicrous to me, and I realized just how desperate of a man he was.
The Queen had obviously gone missing. And he was frantic. He hid his feelings well, but his clumsy, reckless decisions spoke his true emotions.
I didn't speak, and was watching him, still.
He turned to me and smiled. "Think of this as the opportunity of a lifetime."
"Yes," I replied dryly. "To be a puppet queen has been my lifelong ambition."
"You have the opportunity to be royalty," he said compellingly.
It didn't matter very much to me. I didn't particularly enjoy court life. "Can I send a message out?" I asked, thinking of Ti.
He graciously paused to think about this. "No," he told me. "Your family would come looking for you. It is better for them to think you've gone missing. After all, young girls who wander by themselves late at night go missing all the time. Why were you trespassing the palace at this hour anyway?"
I thought of Cicario. Perhaps now that I was in the palace I could see him--if I could escape the watchful eye of this "Duke Pryus", that is. "I was curious. I wanted to see it."
He accepted this lie with a nod. "Sleep for now," he ordered me. "And speak to no one. Remember that you are the Queen of Mait. You may remain silent if you wish to do so. There's still much for me to do. I will see you in the morning." He headed toward the door, then glanced over his shoulder and added, "The doors will be locked from the outside. Don't try to leave."
I watched him leave, then got up and walked to the window, looking out. Somewhere out there was the girl I encountered in front of the South Gate. She'd gotten me into an unfathomable mess.