Maebhe thought she might be sick. A mix of apprehension and hope housed itself directly behind her navel, twisting and tugging and tangling into anxious knots.
She, Drys, and Kieran made their way through the halls of the King’s palace for the second time in mere weeks. Kieran had hurried here alone the night before, after their eventful visit to Tellaos’ castle, but had been told it was too late, that the King had already retired for the evening. No amount of insistence on Kieran’s part had swayed the palace guards.
The wait until morning had been a long one for Maebhe. In every shadow, she glimpsed movement. When she tried to sleep, she saw crimson eyes and a warped smile burned into her eyelids. She was lucky she’d had Drys, who’d been instrumental in keeping her…distracted.
Maebhe tugged at the tie of her kerchief, feeling like it suffocated her. She didn’t know why she was so nervous; the King had been perfectly reasonable — kind, even — during their last meeting. And now, they brought him the key to resolving this conflict with Illyon before it could develop any further. This was the start to fixing everything. When Unity’s diplomats arrived, King Whelan could simply hand the freed Amos Nochdvor over to them.
He just had to do something about that woman. When Maebhe though of her, of her empty stare and air of death that surrounded her, a fear gripped her unlike any she’d previously known. But surely, that woman, no matter how unnatural or seemingly untouchable she may be, could not withstand the city guard and its modern weapons.
Maebhe jumped when something touched her hand, laughing to herself when she realized it was only Drys’ fingers brushing her own. She took their hand when it was offered to her and smiled.
“You’re not subtle. And our walls aren’t exactly thick, you know,” Kieran muttered.
“Oh, I know,” Maebhe said. “I have to listen to you and Íde all the time, don’t I?”
Kieran flushed and made a quiet hmmph noise, thankfully dropping the subject.
The path to the King’s meeting room was almost familiar to Maebhe by now. Outside the grand doors to the King’s audience chambers, a guard said to them, “The King will see you shortly. He’s just finishing another meeting.”
“You told him this is an emergency, didn’t you, Finn?” Kieran asked.
The guard sighed and glanced back at the doors, confirming they were solidly shut before saying, “I did try, Kieran. His Highness is—,” Finn lowered his voice, “—a bit tetchy today.”
“Tetchy how?” Maebhe asked in a whisper.
Finn shook his head, and just then, the doors tot he throne room flew open. A man stepped out, pausing when he noticed the assembled group.
“My apologies. I didn’t realize there was a queue,” the man said. His voice reminded Maebhe of the gravelly tumble she’d heard from dragons in Gallontea. He smiled and bowed low — the smile charmed, at first glance, but when Maebhe looked closer she saw that it was too sharp, too wide. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
“We’ve only been here a few minutes,” Maebhe said, pushing past her unease to smile at the man.
He wasn’t orinian, but Maebhe couldn’t tell what he was. He barely seemed human. When he noticed her stare, he looked Maebhe up and down in return, thoughtful — his pupils, Maebhe noticed, were rectangular like a dragon’s. A shiver ran through her.
“Pleased to hear it,” he said. The low pitch of his voice made it hard to read his tone, but Maebhe didn’t like the way he looked at her. Why did he seem so angry? “King Whelan is all yours.”
“Thank you,” Kieran said. Maebhe could tell by her twin’s stiff posture that he was just as unsettled as her. When the man turned to leave, Maebhe, Kieran, and Drys moved well out of his way and watched him go. Maebhe felt even more uneasy than before.
Finn and the other guard held the doors open for them. “The King will see you now,” Finn said.
Maebhe nodded, squared her shoulders, and crossed the threshold, Drys and Kieran falling into step beside her.
Inside, everything was just the same as it had been the last time Maebhe came here. Only the sky past the clear windows had changed, gloomy clouds now hanging low in heavy swaths. The windows were shut today, keeping the brisk autumn wind out.
Even the King sat slouched in the same chair as before, this time wearing tinted spectacles that hid his eyes. Maebhe didn’t see the point of them, given the weather. But she, Kieran, and Drys all bowed, rising when King Whelan waved them off.
“Well, if it isn’t you three again,” he said. “Did you remember something about your trip to Gallontea that you needed to tell me?”
“No, Your Highness,” Maebhe said. “We— that is, I — saw something last night that I think you should know about.”
Above his thin spectacles, Whelan raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“It was in the old castle,” Maebhe admitted, hating how small her voice sounded.
Before Whelan could even ask, Drys stepped in. “I insisted Maebhe take me there. She told me it’s not allowed, but I didn’t give her a choice. I incited a debt she owed me.”
Whelan’s eyebrow twitched, displeasure settling heavily over his features. “That castle is restricted for a reason. It’s a horribly unsound building; it could have easily collapsed on top of you. You didn’t think to stop this?” Whelan asked, the last part directed at Kieran.
Kieran cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried. I told them the same thing.”
“I expected better from a Captain of my guard,” Whelan said. Kieran flinched; Maebhe did the same, internally. She’d hoped for a better start.
“Fine, then,” Whelan said. “What did you see in the castle? You realize nothing in there has changed in hundreds of years, don’t you?”
“That’s just the thing,” Maebhe said. “When I was in there, I came across a lit lantern. It was mounted in a stairway that led down to a dungeon, and there I found…well, Your Highness, I found Amos Nochdvor.”
Whelan stilled. “Surely, you were mistaken.”
Maebhe shook her head. “I talked to him, Your Highness. He told me exactly who he was! He looked terrible, like he hasn’t seen sunlight in weeks. I would’ve tried breaking him out then and there, if I’d had time, but then…”
“Then?” Whelan prompted.
“A woman appeared. She chased us away. There was something wrong about her, Highness. I think she was magic. She had to be. She must have been what Unity meant, when they questioned Kieran and Íde about magic in the prison. They must know something we don’t, and — and there must be more of these creatures. This woman was just like the dragon we saw in Lyryma — she glowed just the same way.”
“Slow down, Ms. Cairn,” King Whelan said. He shifted as if to stand, then cringed and fell back into his seat. Kieran started forward to help him, but Whelan waved him off. “Don’t. It’s just these old bones. The weather makes them ache.”
Maebhe frowned. He tried to hide it, but she saw the way Whelan clutched at his side. That didn’t seem like joint pain.
“Mr. Cairn, Drys, did either of you see the alfar King?” Whelan asked.
Drys glanced at Kieran, who shook his head.
“Did you see the woman Ms. Cairn claims chased the three of you out of the castle?”
“Just glimpses,” Kieran admitted.
“Do you have proof of anything you claim happened last night?” Whelan asked.
“What proof do you want, exactly? A written and signed testimony from Nochdvor himself?” Drys asked, their voice dripping with sarcasm. “When Maebhe told us to run, I ran because I trust her, and she’s never given me a reason to doubt her in the past. I can confirm someone chased us out of that castle, even if I didn’t get a good look at their face. I can give you my word as a faerie of Lyryma.”
That wasn’t an oath to be taken lightly, and Maebhe felt her fears ease for just a moment. But Whelan only adjusted his spectacles, wearing the same blank expression he’d had since they came in. “That doesn’t provide to me that the missing Alfheim King is being held captive in a thousands-year-old castle right under our noses,” he reasoned.
“Are you saying I’m lying?” Maebhe asked. “I don’t understand; why are you being like this? Last time, you said you’d do anything to help Orean! Like you said, the castle is right under our noses — all you have to do is send a party to search the castle. They’ll be able to prove me right or wrong in an instant!”
“I told you, that building is dangerous!” Whelan snapped. “Just sending a party in there is endangering them, and when you come here with no proof, I don’t see that the risk is justified.”
“Then I’ll go back into the castle and get you your proof,” Maebhe challenged. “Break King Nochdvor out myself, if I have to.”
“Absolutely not,” Whelan said. “I forbid it. I have enough concerns as it is; I don’t need to worry about children and foreigners breaking into historical buildings on top of that. If you don’t stand down, Ms. Cairn, I’m afraid I’ll have to ban all three of you from the Old City, for precautions’ sake. Please understand that it’s for your own safety.”
“With all due respect, Your Highness,” Kieran began slowly. Maebhe felt surprise at him speaking up at all, after the King’s earlier comment. “What about the safety of Orean? I understand the risk of going to the castle, but surely, when weighed against the potential of finding King Nochdvor—,”
“Kieran,” Whelan interrupted, voice softening. “I asked around about you after our first meeting, you know. Everyone agrees you’re an exceptionally level-headed and competent Captain. I know this is a stressful time. I don’t blame you for coming to me with this; I know you only want to help.
“You too, Ms. Cairn,” he continued. “I’m sure you believe you saw the alfar King last night, but you must realize how impossible that is. The imagination of young people is a wild thing — I was young once, too. Of course trespassing in an old, fanciful castle at night might only further those imaginings. And in these uncertain times, when all of our thoughts are turned so frequently to Alfheim and their missing King, it makes sense that this is the form your imagination might latch on to.”
The only thing stopping Maebhe from walking over and slapping Whelan was his obvious injury and the pleading look Kieran shot her. She didn’t even care about his status, at this point. “I didn’t dream all of this up!” she yelled.
“Ms. Cairn, that is quite enough. I believe I’ve indulged your delusions enough for today. There are no glowing orinian women in this city, and—,”
“I never said she was orinian,” Maebhe interrupted.
Whelan hesitated. Even still, his expression did not change. He might as well have been dead, for all the life there was to it. “Forgive me, I must have assumed.”
“Assumed,” Maebhe repeated, suspicious.
“Who was that you were talking to just before us, Your Highness?” Drys asked suddenly. Maebhe had already forgotten about that strange man. Could he be linked to the glowing woman somehow? Had they gotten to the King first? Or had Whelan been working with them this whole time?
“You overstep, Drys Homeborn,” Whelan warned. “I don’t have time for this. I’m preparing for a hostile visit from Unity; I’ve indulged enough stories about monsters in castles for one day. Please leave me, now. Don’t make me call the guard.”
Kieran was the first to bow. “Of course, Your Highness. We’re sorry to have taken up so much of your time.”
Maebhe and Kieran bowed as well, much more reluctantly, and turned to leave. Maebhe followed behind the other two, dejected, but just as she passed through the double doors leading out of the audience chamber, she stopped. Her anger getting the better of her, she turned around and stormed right back into the room.
“Maebhe!” Kieran called after her.
When Maebhe came upon the King, he was standing, leaning heavily on his armchair, confirming Maebhe’s suspicion of an injury. His back was to her, his spectacles in hand.
“Your Highness, I beg you to reconsider,” she said, without waiting for him to turn around. “I don’t need you to say anything right now, but if you care about this city, you’ll send someone to rescue King Nochdvor. This city needs your leadership, and you have a chance to really help it.”
Whelan had stiffened while she spoke, the lines of tension growing more prominent the longer she stood there.
“Get out,” the King snapped, and Maebhe had no choice but to obey.
“Fine. Thank you for seeing us,” she said, mustering up what graciousness she could. She turned on her heel and left, not understanding what had come over their King that changed him so thoroughly.
When she was gone for good, King Whelan groaned and passed a hand across his face. When he opened his eyes, they glowed crimson.