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“Name.”

The imposing woman sounded like she was giving orders rather than asking questions.

“Avery,” I heard myself say. Mother had always drilled into me never to tell anyone my name. But it could not hurt to give the name of my dead sister.

The pen made scratching sounds on her paper. She looked up again, hawk eyes boring into me from either side of her sharp nose. Everything about her was sharp from her voice to her crisp, rust-colored uniform.

I had no family name to give. Father was a Saliz, and his father before him a Saliz. But Mother said that name was not ours. Not after they died.

She made another note. “Years.”

“Twenty.”

She studied me a moment, then wrote it down. By the motion of her pen, she had accepted it, at least on paper. Although I was only sixteen years, I would probably look the same at twenty. I felt at least twenty-five, but dates held more value than feelings.
I looked from the sharp hawk woman to the bare, cold, gray room. “The Inquisition Room” they called it. No, I would not look the same at twenty. I would never be twenty.

“Birthplace.”

I did not think it mattered. “Willow Falls.”

She looked up sharply. Did she know it?

Her expression was one of irritation and impatience, and belatedly I realized that she thought I was being difficult. “Miss. Avery.” She spoke both patronizingly and insultingly. “This process is not a laugh. You will answer every question honestly, without hesitation. You will be respectful—”

She continued, and I waited. Willow Falls was a tiny village of a dozen farmsteads in the far north of Niare. I should have realized that no one south of Essel would know it, especially not a woman born and raised in Saliz. The wealth of the palace probably blinded their eyes and minds from knowing that other cities existed.

When she finally stopped, I gave the answer she wanted. “Essel.”

If she recognized that the town in the far north was the most sizable in that region and that I had not intended disrespect with my original answer, she did not show it. She wrote both.

“Family.”

I waited. She made a note, pressing her pen deep into the paper with all the force of her irritation.

“Family’s occupation.”

“Farming.” Everyone in the north was either a farmer or a landowner to farmers. It was useless question.

“Apprenticeship.” If not for her rant, I would have doubted her communicative skills. She spoke as though it was a pointless question.

I heard my pride saying, “Woodworking.”

“Years?” Sharp Eyes was surprised, barely.

I felt self-satisfied and annoyed. I tried not to sound uncertain as I said, “Seven.” Any less would imply that I was lying about my age, but to have put in so many years without becoming a journeyman was foolish.

Her expression confirmed it. She studied me a moment before saying, “Your crime—”

“Murder.” It had not been easy. I had never killed anyone before—at least not on purpose or in person, and definitely not after careful planning. But a smaller crime would not have landed me in the king’s prison.

There was a touch of surprise in her voice when she asked, “Plead?”

“Guilty.”

Her face did not change, but she dropped her pen as though shocked. Was she using a Charm?

As soon as I suspected it fell apart before my eyes, leaving a plump, kindly middle-aged woman. Even her suit was a soft shade of light brown.

I felt foolish. She would have a Charm, she interviewed dangerous criminals in the king’s prison. As an inquisitioner, I expected her to have a truth-seeing Talent, but it had not occurred to me that she might also have a Charm. Evidently it was a perception-based Charm that made her seem tough and intimidating.

I should not have been surprised. In the south, Charmers were as common as farmers in the north. Even pie-sellers in the market and barmen in inns had little ones that had tricked me out of a few coins when I first met them.

I wished I knew if I had any Charms or Talents. They could be very subtle, and some people never knew they were using them. But the ones who did know were always better at it. Mother believed that Magic was the devil’s music and had never let me be tested. Though that never stopped her from letting my perfect sister Kivalya Charm our garden.

Soft and fuzzy was studying me with kindly eyes, unaware that her Charm was no longer effective. With it gone, I could see what she was thinking. If I pleaded self-defense, she would let me go.

 

The man I had targeted had murdered three girls like me—sixteen, small, and pretty. They had been innocent and unprepared, but I had been armed and ready. I had even used a knife, which was such a messy, dreadful method. It needed to look serious to put me in the king’s own prison, but not enough be hanged immediately. According to Frog, some criminals never made it to prison.

And I needed to ask a question of the king. It was the reason I had come to his prison.

Even in Willow Falls, we had heard that the king would meet any person sentenced to death. The rumor was that he had wished to abolish the death sentence, but was prevented by his advisers. Instead, he had sent out a proclamation declaring that any person to receive the death penalty might request to speak with him before they died. One short interview with the king.

I had believed it to be a myth. It had not seemed possible in the north where the counts controlled the cities, and each had its own system of lawlessness. Still, upon arriving in Saliz, I had looked into every possibility. Several fellows had confirmed receiving the death penalty as a way to meet the king. No one ever left the king’s prisons, but the stories still made their ways through the ratways. Apparently, it was true. The only way in was by committing an unpardonable crime and the only way out was death.
There were other more legal methods, but they were more difficult to follow.

By making friends with some of the quieter, politer members of the criminal element in Saliz, I had learned about the laws of Saliz. Most crimes were pardonable, but murder was not.

Finding a target had not been easy. I had to frequent the sleaziest bars for phases. It had taken several excruciating hours and a full phase’s wages worth of toxic drinks to convince a killable fellow to follow me into the dirtiest alley south of Sorya. The actual stabbing had not been a picnic, either. Prepared as I was, he was physically stronger and more practiced. I would remember it forever—his obnoxious laugh and putrid breath, the feeling of panic when I thought he would have four victims, the disgusting stickiness of his blood on my hands…

I would not let all that gruesome work go to waste.

I could not, for Avery’s sake.

The Watch apprehended me in the alley almost immediately after the deed was done. When I arrived at the dungeon’s and was told my crime and likely sentence, I had made the request. The guards had sneered, but judging by the expression of my questioner, someone had since discovered the identity of my victim.

“Is there anything you would like to say?” Her concern crept into her voice, and I wondered if she had dropped the Charm herself. She probably knew how, being from the south. Staring at her paper, she sighed. “What is your purpose?”

“I would like to ask a question of the King.”

Fool.

We could agree that I was a fool—how could I have answered such a question? And what a question to have asked!
It was not on the list, I had not been prepared.

 

The inquisitor looked past me and fairly leapt to attention. A man came around the desk and glanced at her notes. “No change?” he spoke to her, ignoring me completely, which was fine.

He was fine. I did not know if I had ever seen someone so attractive. It was not his looks as much as his air, his expression, and the way he stood. He was tall, at least a head taller than ex-Sharp, who was above average. His uniform enhanced his respectable appearance without hiding the strength of his muscular build. His chocolate brown eyes were full of intelligence and life, and his face was clean-shaven and beautiful. Yet manly. He had the bronzed skin typical of southerners and brown hair that looked like it would curl if only he would let it.

It should be noted that that was Avery’s first impression. Mine was that this was probably the last person I would live to see. He was sitting at the desk, the door behind me was shutting Sharp out, and those eyes, full of intelligence and something darker, focused on me. I wanted to disappear. Avery might have seen good-looking, but I saw terrifying.

“Miss Avery, I understand you have a question to ask.” His eyes bored into me, full of fire, and I was burning.

Not in a good way, in case that was unclear.

They thought I had come to assassinate the king! I could see it in his eyes. Inwardly, I cringed and berated myself for having been so obvious. Not that I wanted to kill him! But I should have been less direct about my intention to meet the king.

Idiot.

Outwardly, I did not blink.

“You read a newspaper.”

I did twitch, but only slightly.

“You compared the three murders, investigated their last locations, deduced where to locate the perpetrator, and devised a trap for him.”

He was using words I had never heard before. One of my facial bones might have moved, but not much.

“You lured him into the alley and stabbed him with his own knife, attacking him the same way he had killed his victims.”

I had not blinked, at least. Nor had I intended to use his knife. I had lost mine.

“Then called out to the nearest Watch, ‘Help, I have just killed a man!’”

I did not remember doing such a thing, but the man’s fiery eyes and dry tone were not asking questions. It was true that they were able to arrive while he was still breathing, although the fight had not been loud…

“If you would like to make corrections, please do so.”

I blinked then only because my eyes had dried out.

Fire eyes waited. He looked like a patient man, dismayed by the situation. As I was the source of the situation, he did not like me.

That made us a pair. He was blocking me from my meeting with the king. I remained silent to avoid saying anything foolish, but I felt my face slip into an annoyed expression.

“You are either very stupid or very clever, Miss Avery.” His eyes were angry.

I was not sure which I was supposed to be, from his wording, so I asked.

“If you are stupid, you may live to see another day. If not…” He set a small vial on the table. Poison.

I almost laughed, except that he was frightening, and I did not think he would see the humor. By his logic, if I was clever I was there to kill the king. It seemed backwards. I debated and hesitated, but then, my life was already forfeit. “You are suggesting, then, that only a foolish person would not wish to see her king dead?” I spoke innocently, but his hands convulsed on the table, prepared to choke someone. I wondered what Avery would do if he tried. “Or perhaps that only a fool would try so hard to speak with her king?”

His hands relaxed. He chuckled, putting the vial away. Without a word, he stood and left the small, dull room.

Had I misspoken? Of course only a fool would look for the king in a dungeon. A clever, non-murderous person would seek a normal audience. But an audience with the king included his Protector, a master mage. No master mage would let me into the same building as the king, let alone close enough to ask a question and long enough to hear his reply. My source had been certain that the king’s Protector only left the king’s side when he visited the dungeons.

More likely, the king was not coming at all.

I had heard that they could kill the occupants of these rooms from outside, by water or poison. Avery could not save me from drowning or inhaling noxious gasses. Or starvation. Or…

 

It was only a few minutes before the door opened again, but by the time it did I had made an extensive mental list of all the fates that Avery could not prevent.

The guard that opened it removed the shackles from my hands and feet. Instead of replacing them with the portable variety that had accompanied me from my most recent accommodations, he took me by the wrist and led me up out of the dungeon.
I stopped in the doorway between the subterranean cells and the palace above, looking as if I wanted to stay below in the dark, and felt stupid for doing it. I also blinked excessively. The amount of light in the guard room was barely more than had been shining on me in the interrogation room.

The guard waited, not seeming to think it strange. Or perhaps he had been warned that I was and advised to ignore it.

I had stopped because I smelled something sweet and buttery. How long had I been starving?

Three guards noticed us and set down their biscuits. One nudged the fourth, who turned with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. He startled and stood, and the sandwich went flying. It flew up and down again, intact, and landed on the floor near the door. I did not realize that the guard had moved until he clasped my shoulders and crushed me into a hug.

Me! The prisoner! The dangerous, murdering, king-assassinator!

Had we met?

He released me, and the tear-filled eyes of a stranger glowed down at me. Perhaps he was someone who deeply despised the king and admired my efforts. The other guards surrounded me, all smiling like it was a celebration. In a cracking voice, one spoke of a girl and thanked me.

One of the victims of my victim had been the daughter of a palace guard. It was only chance—I had chosen him because I had thought we could get along. I matched his type and he matched mine. Really, it had been a partnership. And here were the guards remembering a bright-eyed girl who did not deserve to die and seeing me as her avenger.

I would not have thought I would be glad to see Fire Eyes, but when he came and told me to follow, I moved quickly, almost cheerfully. The guards followed me into the hall and offered future assistance.

Do we have a future?

Fire Eyes did not seem inclined to answer questions, but he was leading me away from the dungeons, which was both hopeful and unpromising. They were not going to kill me yet, but if this was the way to the king, I would probably run into his Protector first.

 

He must have led me through the servants’ halls, as we passed only two young pages on the way from the guardhouse to the main hall. He entered a room at last, and without sound or signal managed to leave me at the door, sit down at a desk, and read several papers before I could enter at his invitation.

Perplexed, I watched him as I approached his desk. He did not seem to have a Charm or Talent, or Gifts of any kind. Looking at him, it felt as if magic had ceased to exist.

“Miss Avery,” he began. His eyes were polite, now that we were not in the dungeon.

I sat down, hands in my lap. Polite and harmless, just like mother taught. “Mister.” I made it sound like a name. Unreasonably, I felt that knowing his name would ruin my day.

“You may ask your question of me.”

There was only one way that could end, and it was not pretty. “Are you the king?” I made my tone confused.

“The king is not available for one who is either clever or a fool.” He poured me a glass of tea.

I smiled, innocent and sweet, imitating my sister Kivalya. “And for a clever fool, who believed in the law?” I drank the whole glass, even though I hated tea. I had been stuck in that cell for days and days.

Six hours.

For what felt like days and days.

Fire Eyes, looking amused, poured himself a glass. He held it up to the light and admired the amber liquid. “There is no poison in this tea.” He took a thoughtful sip.

Avery would not let me be poisoned by a petty drink. I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms, like brother Jayden would have done. “That was kind of you.”

“I am one of the king’s chief advisers, Miss Avery. My name is Eliot Winter.”

I flinched and let out a sigh to cover it. “Did I ask?” I muttered.

Eliot Winter. The king’s chief legal adviser and lawmaker had a reputation for being cold and unbending. He was the man who made Saliz a lawful city, according to the unlawful members of local society.

“Anything too complicated or too political is under my jurisdiction.”

I felt cold. Closing my eyes, I sat up straight. Truly, mother knew best.

I acted alone.

I took a deep breath. Opened my mouth to confess all.

“I have a job for you, Miss Avery.”

Or not.

I looked up at his face.

He smirked at my shock. It was not a nice smile, not at all comforting. “I intend to discover, Miss Avery, whether you are very stupid, or very clever.”

My eyes met Eliot Winter’s. His glinted red in the lighting of his office, jumping and sparking like an open flame. “I am not certain myself, Mister Winter. But I imagine we will find out soon.” I felt pretty stupid, but a little clever, too. It was not what I had planned, but I was in the palace. Actually in the palace, not under it. There was a much greater chance of finding the king and asking my question inside than outside. And it could wait, for now.

“You may call me Captain.” He held out his hand. “Welcome to the office of legal affairs, Apprentice Avery.”

Shaking it, I felt properly trapped, much more than when the prison doors had closed behind me earlier that day. Had it only been a few hours?

I felt a pressure building in my heart. Avery?

But there was only silence. I was alone.

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A note from Moonweave

Constructive criticism and other comments welcome ^^


About the author

Moonweave

Bio: I dream, I travel, I read, I write, and then I start over again.

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