"Um, excuse, me, Mr, no, that's not right. . ."

I turned around to see a young girl standing behind me as I made my final round of the palace. "Can I help you, Miss?"

"Well, Sir, I was here for a --" she started, biting her lip. "I've been wandering around her for nearly an hour and I haven't run into anyone. I don't recall the way out. I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but could you please direct me towards the exit?"

"You wouldn't happen to be Sumay Hakaru, would you?"

"Yes." She bowed quickly. Her red hair was tied back in two ponytails. "And you're Atreyu Desai. I've heard a lot of you lately."

"You don't have to bow. I'm on scout duty."

"Oh, I know," she said, taking a step back.

"But I'm just leaving," I said quickly. "If you want, I can escort you out."

After a moment of hesitation she nodded slowly. "That is, if you don't mind."

"Not at all." I pointed down the hall. "It's this way." I led her down the first corridor, realizing that it would be difficult to find your own way out of the palace on your first visit. Especially without the guidance of a maid. I cleared my throat after we had walked for a moment, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye. "I know it's my not place to ask, but does your engagement to Deo Desai still stand?"

"Oh, yes." She nodded, a small smile coming to her lips. "Why?" Her mouth opened a little in realization. "The two of you are related. I'm sorry, I sort of forgot about that."

"You and I will be cousins after the marriage," I said.

"To be honest, it's sort of intimidating knowing that I'll be part of such a respected clan. I don't know if I'll be able to live up to everyone's expectations."

"I wouldn't worry. It's not like we're the Sedins or anything," I replied, not really thinking it through. "Deo's the first male to get married in about six years."

"Even more pressure," she whispered.

"That's not what I meant," I said as we past the first archway that led to the main hall. "You met Deo this evening, didn't you?"

"Yes. He was really nice."

"So you liked him?" What kind of question was that? So much for being tactful.

She smiled and nodded, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. She sure fidgeted a lot. Hylika wasn't kidding when she said that she was shy. "I'm pretty lucky."

"I'm sure that's what he's thinking right now." The large doors of the palace entrance were now in sight. After exchanging a few words with the guard, I opened the door for Sumay.

"Thank you, Atreyu," she said quietly as I closed the door. "For showing me the way out."

"My pleasure." I nodded to her as she waved and turned around the corner.

The Desai family house was oddly quiet when I arrived. From even the front rooms, I could hear the hushed murmurs of people talking. None of the lights were on, and I headed towards the leisure room for my branch of the family. I opened the door slowly, finding Mordecai and Hershel standing near the table at the center.

"Is something wrong?" I asked, finding the atmosphere of the room to be heavy.

Mordecai stood beside me, his hand at my shoulder. "Another human managed to escape from one of the laboratories today," he started solemnly. "He was captured near the palace."

"Hylika." It was the first name that came to mind, and I was too surprised to remember honorifics. "Is she all right? What's happened to her?"

"The Princess is well, son," Hershel said.

Mordecai continued. "The escaped human found Deo. He's dead."

I felt my throat go dry.

"I'm sorry," said Hershel. "I know how you and he were --"

"No. I just saw him at the beginning of my shift," I said. "He was going to meet Sumay. I talked to her. She said that she had met him."

"He was on his way home from the palace when he was killed," my father replied.

"But. . . how?" I shook my head slowly in disbelief. "Killed by a human?"

"It had escaped during a transport. Somehow, it managed to get its hands on a sword."

"That's not possible." Killed? By a human? "Deo could take on a human. He placed seventh at the tournament," I said. "Humans can't even use swords, they just hack away and they're slow, and clumsy --"

"Then the human must have surprised him. It could very well have been a fluke."

"No. I don't get it. He was good with a sword. A human couldn't have killed him."

"I'm sorry, Atreyu," Hershel said, taking my hand in hers. "I know that he meant a lot to you."

"But couldn't someone revive him?"

Mordecai shook his head. "By the time that Bakar found him there, it was too late."

"Where is Deo?"

"They took him to the infirmary preparation room," my mother said. "Perhaps it would be best if you went to see him one last time. Bakar has preparations to take care of. Because of this, the curfew has been lifted for our clan. The human will be executed by Bakar in three days."

"You shouldn't leave right away," Mordecai said. "Take some time here before you go."

I nodded weakly in return.

I spent an hour at the Desai family house, speaking with my parents, and even several others, before heading for the infirmary. When I got there, there was an intern near the entrance, who, once I told him my name, allowed me into a room where there was a table in the center of the room with a black sheet covering what lay on it. The intern left, closing the door behind him, and everything was quiet. I approached the table after a moment, putting a trembling hand to the edge of the black sheet.

Deo looked like he was sleeping. I touched his hand, finding the coldness of his skin strangely foreign. His cobalt blue uniform shirt was ripped in a jagged pattern at his lower left ribs, the stab wound. It was the only injury, but it was certainly enough to kill. The human must have been shorter than him, I thought, judging from the way the sword would have entered from between his lower ribs, thrusting upwards. It was a move taught at the academy as a last resort, I remembered. And quite a hard one to pull off unless you were naturally shorter than your opponent.

I pulled the sheet back over him, and after several minutes passed by, left the room.