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Chapter no 19 – Tessa

Defy the Night

Quint must be used to lling uncomfortable silences. I’m holding on to his arm like it’s the only thing keeping me upright, my breathing shallow and rapid, and he’s waxing poetic about the historical relevance of the doorknobs.

“And you’ll see,” he’s saying as we move into the central part of the palace, “the metalworking here turns from brass to gold-plated steel. Much of this area was destroyed in a re a century ago, but the Steel City sector was just beginning to ourish, so King Rodbert ordered that all—”

“Master Quint.” A guard has appeared in our path. My ngers tighten on Quint’s arm.

Maybe Prince Corrick has changed his mind. Maybe this guard is going to drag me away. Maybe I’m going to be drawn and quartered. ey’ll do it in front of the king. Or on that stage where he was going to execute eight people. Or—

e guard extends a hand with an unevenly folded slip of paper. “From His Highness, Prince Corrick.”

Quint takes it. “ank you, Lennard.”

e guard’s eyes don’t shi to me, but he says, “He asked that you give it to Tessa.”

Quint oers the paper to me. I close my ngers around it. I have no idea what it could say.

at’s not true. I can just imagine what it says. Probably a promise to break all my bones if I mess this up. I want to crumple it up without looking. Quint is walking again, and the guard steps to the side to allow us to pass.

My hand is damp on the note, but I don’t want to unfold it. “Are you not going to read it?” says Quint.

I make a face. “It probably says something like, ‘Say the wrong thing about me, and I’ll use your limbs as rewood.’ ”

“I rather doubt it. I’m certain he would expect the guard to see it.”

at draws me up short. I’ve never considered worrying about such a thing. My ngertips press into the paper, and I swallow.

Quint drops his voice. “Can you not read?” I snap my head around. “What?”

ere is no need to be ashamed. I can arrange for tutors discreetly.” His voice is still very low. “A delegate from Trader’s Landing married a woman who had never learned her letters nor her sums, and within weeks—”

“I can read!” For goodness’ sake. I hastily unfold the paper and stare at the words scrawled there. ey stop my heart and coax it into beating again.

“Mind your mettle,” I whisper. For a breath of time, I want to press the paper to my chest.

Weston Lark isn’t real. He’s not.

But if he’s not real, then Prince Corrick sent me the exact words I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear them. Words that could sound like a warning or a threat or nothing of consequence at all.

I take a long, steadying breath. I square my shoulders and fold the paper into a rectangle in my palm.

“Steady on?” says Quint. His eyes are searching my face.

For all his endless prattle, Quint is sharper than he seems. I make a mental note to remember that.

“Steady on,” I say, and to my surprise, I mean it.

“Marvelous! Now, allow me to draw your attention to the wall hangings . .

.”

 

 

e palace is enormous, and though it takes a while to walk to wherever the king awaits, it’s obvious when we draw near. While we’ve passed guards and servants in the hallways, this door is surrounded by eight armed men: two on each side, with four directly across. ese guards bear an extra adornment on their sleeves that I haven’t seen on the others, a crown stitched in gold surrounded by interlocking circles of purple and blue. A

footman in richly detailed livery stands to the side as well. e guards don’t seem to move, but I feel their attention on me the instant we come into view. Every hair on the back of my neck stands up.

My nger’s tighten on Quint’s arm again, but my step doesn’t hesitate. “You’ll stay?” I breathe.

“If asked.”

e footman announces us. I think we’ll be made to wait, but a voice calls from the other side. “Enter.”

e door swings wide, and I nd I can’t breathe. Quint leads me forward.

is is a dierent terror from last night, when I was certain I faced execution. is is fear wrapped up in silk and ribbons and etched with gold.

e room is smaller than I expect, with a marble oor and a long, shining glass table. e windows here stretch from the oor nearly to the ceiling, and curtains have been drawn wide, allowing natural light and warmth to swell in the room, making the sky-blue walls come alive with shadows. Flowers bloom in massive pots set against the wall, lling the space with warm and inviting scents. An actual tree towers in the corner, situated in a pot half the size of the table, and vines climb the trunk and stick to the wall, blooming with tiny pink owers along the length. If a garden could be brought inside, I very much think it would look like this room.

en my eyes fall on the king standing by the corner of the table, and it’s a testament to the room that I didn’t notice him rst. I saw him last night, but my brain was clouded with fear, and my only thoughts were of escape and survival—to say nothing of betrayal. Now I can take in his height—slightly taller than Corrick, I think—and the breadth of his shoulders—slightly narrower—and the black of his hair and the blue of his eyes. He has a smattering of freckles like his brother, too, though his skin is more pale, and there’s no hint of a smile on his mouth, so the freckles look like someone painted them on, an attempt to make a severe man seem more boyish. Four more guards stand by the wall at his back, and another footman waits in the corner by a table lled with drinks and delicacies.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to kneel or curtsy or lie down on the oor and beg for my life. My mouth is dry. I wish Jossalyn were here so I could follow her lead. e king’s eyes are on me, and I nd I can’t move.

“Your Majesty,” says Quint. “May I present—” “I know who she is, Quint.”

“Ah, yes. And may I remind you that she is unfamiliar with court protocol

—”

“I don’t need to be reminded.” e king’s eyes ick to my le. “Out.”

I suck in a breath, but Quint’s arm drops from under my hand before I can dig in with my ngers. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

And then he’s gone, and I’m alone with the king. e door quietly clicks closed behind us.

No matter how much nery Jossalyn laced onto my body this morning, I feel like the ragged outlaw in torn clothes he saw last night in Corrick’s chambers. My hands utter over my skirts, unsure where to settle.

So many words want to escape my lips.

Forgive me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to doPlease don’t kill me.

Please don’t have Corrick kill mePlease bring Quint back.

Please send me home.

Jossalyn’s warning to wait until he addressed me is ringing in my ears. I bite into my lip from the inside until I taste blood.

e former king was well loved by the people. Kandala prospered. To sit with Harristan’s and Corrick’s father would have been an honor. I wouldn’t have been terri ed. I would have been in awe. e envy of everyone I knew.

en again, with the previous king, I wouldn’t have been sneaking into the servants’ quarters. I wouldn’t have been smuggling medicine out of the Royal Sector. I wouldn’t be here at all.

I’d be a lot better off than I am right now, because King Harristan is most de nitely not well loved.

“What thought just crossed your mind?” he says. I jump. “I—what?”

His expression doesn’t change. “I know you heard me.”

I can’t very well say that no one likes him. “I was—I was—” My voice sounds like a wheezing whisper. I have to clear my throat, but it doesn’t help. He’s every bit as intimidating as Corrick. “I was thinking that King Lucas was well loved by the people.”

King Harristan’s eyes search my face, and his expression shis in a way that makes me think he can read every thought I’m not voicing. “Yes, he was.” He holds out a hand to indicate a chair. “Sit.”

I have to force my feet to move. He’s watching me, and aer the way he said, I know you heard me, I don’t want to make him wait again. He eases into the chair at the head of the table, but I drop into mine so quickly that I have to grab the edge of the table to keep from upending the chair.

Almost as if by some unseen signal, the footman moves out of the corner. He was standing so silently that I almost forgot he was there. He sets two glass goblets in front of us, then two china cups on delicate saucers. First the king, then me. He pours water into the goblets, and then tea into the cups.

e tea is dark gray and smells heavenly. e footman pours milk into the king’s tea and adds a small spoonful of sugar, then glances at me. “Milk and sugar, miss?”

I have no idea, but following the king’s lead doesn’t sound like a bad plan. “Yes. Please. Sir.”

Once he’s returned to the corner, King Harristan traces a nger around the rim of his cup but doesn’t take a sip. “Did you know my father?”

It’s a ridiculous question, but it sounds genuine, so I shake my head. “No.

No, Your Majesty.”

“It’s easy to love your king when everyone is well fed and healthy,” he says. “A bit harder when everyone is . . . not.”

He doesn’t say this in an arrogant way. More . . . contemplative. He’s so severe that sentimentality takes me by surprise. I’m not sure how to respond.

He nally takes a sip of his tea. “Corrick tells me that you steal medicine and distribute it.”

I freeze with my hand on the cup.

“You slipped into the palace, and your life has been spared,” King Harristan says. “You may as well speak freely.”

“Has my life been spared for . . . ah, ever?” I rasp.

Forever? at is outside my power, I would think. But I would not have summoned you here if I wanted frightened lies.” He pauses. “Is my brother mistaken about what you do?”

Mind your mettle. My brain supplies images before I’m ready. Wes in the workshop, helping me weigh and measure. e children we have to coax into taking their medicine. e women who cry on my shoulder when we appear with the vials, because they’re so worried they’ll lose their entire family. e men who want to skip their doses so others can have more.

“Tell me,” says King Harristan.

e words aren’t an order. ey’re a plea.

I blink at him, surprised. My brain supplies a memory from last night. Harristan and Corrick in close conversation, their voices low and intense. I wasn’t listening. I wanted to escape. But my thoughts captured their words to replay later. To replay now.

Cory. I don’t like this.

I wasn’t wrong before. King Harristan has a limit. Not just a limit. A weakness for his people.

I think back to the moment in front of the sector gates, when the eight smugglers were set to be executed. King Harristan looked so cold and aloof. I thought it meant he was numb to our suering, bored with our punishment. I thought it meant he was horrible, as so many of us believe.

But maybe he was so cold and aloof because he didn’t want to be there at all.

What did Corrick say? Kindness leaves you vulnerable, Tessa. I learned that lesson years ago.

King Harristan would have learned that lesson, too. He also lost his parents—and inherited a kingdom that was on the brink of falling apart.

I don’t want to feel any kind of kinship or sympathy for this man or his brother. ey’re cruel and cold, and they’ve caused so much harm. But it’s one thing when I’m seeing the bodies hanging from the gate—and altogether another when Prince Corrick is telling me of their crimes.

I draw a long breath. “Corrick—ah, Prince Corr—I mean, His Highness

—”

“I know who you mean.”

“Right. Of course.” I pause. “He’s not mistaken. I do steal medicine. But I’m not a smuggler. I give it to those who cannot aord their own.”

“Do you not think the people who have legally procured it have a right to their medicine?”

I hesitate.

His eyes bore into mine. “Truth, Tessa. If you will not give me the truth, you can spend the rest of your days in the Hold, and my brother’s wishes be damned.”

I stare back at him. I stood in front of Wes and said the time had come for revolution. I said we should step out of the shadows. Now I’m out of the shadows. I’m right in front of the king—and he’s asking for the truth.

So I give it to him. “Your dosages are too high,” I say. “You’re taking more than you need.”

“You cannot possibly know that.”

“I do know that. My father was an apothecary, and I learned to measure doses myself. e people we are treating stay just as healthy as people taking six times as much.” I’m saying too much, but now that I’ve begun, I can’t stop. “My father used to say that too much medicine could be as harmful as too little. I sometimes wonder if you could heal all your people by virtue of regulating dosages more stringently. If you add a bit of roseseed oil to the elixir—”

“You and your father steal together?”

“I—what? No. My father—my parents are dead.” I swallow. “ey died two years ago.”

To my surprise, he looks startled. He draws back in the chair. “You have my sympathy.”

“Do I?” I say recklessly. “ey were killed by the night patrol. Your night patrol.”

“So your father was a smuggler? An illegal trader?”

“No!” e king might as well have slapped me across the face. I grip the edge of the table. “My father—he—he was a good man—”

“He was doing what you were doing?” “Yes.”

“Which, at its base, is stealing, yes?” I glare at him. “It’s not the same.”

“It’s the same to the night patrol.” He takes a sip of tea. I want to knock it right into his face.

Corrick might not have cut my hands o, but I have a feeling the guards standing by the wall would do it.

“My intention is not to upset you,” says King Harristan. “But if you are to hold me in low regard for what happened to your parents, I would suggest that you consider the choices they made. Every smuggler has a story to justify their actions. e penalties are well known. How can I turn a blind eye to one type of thievery and not another?”

My ngers are clutching the edge of the table so tightly that my knuckles ache. He’s wrong.

But . . . he’s also not. I had this exact argument with Wes from the other side. It’s all the same to the king and his brother.

“What choice do we have?” I snap. “People are dying.” “I know.”

I freeze. at note is in his voice again. He does know. He does care.

“It might be all the same to the night patrol,” I say roughly, “but it’s dierent when someone just wants to survive.”

“I believe the people who buy the medicine lawfully want to survive as well.”

“If someone is starving and they steal a loaf of bread—” “It is still stealing.” His tone doesn’t change.

“Have you ever been starving?” I say boldly.

Silence falls between us, sharp and quick. He hasn’t. Of course he hasn’t.

His eyes don’t leave mine. “If you had this theory about Moon ower petals, about dosages, why did you not make it known?”

“To whom?” I demand. “I just told you, and you didn’t believe me!”

He stares back at me impassively, running his nger around the rim of his teacup again.

I sit back sheepishly. “Your . . . um . . . Majesty.” “You said ‘we.’ ”

“What?” is whole conversation is leaving me a bit breathless. “Are you referring to the Benefactors?”

“No! I don’t know who they are.”

“You said, ‘the people we are treating stay just as healthy.’ Who is we?”

I frown. ere are people in the sectors who think the king is a boorish fool who’s lazy and frivolous, but sitting in front of him, I can tell that they’re wrong. I don’t get the sense that it’s easy to lie to this man.

I do get the sense that he actually wants this kind of honest discourse, which is more surprising than anything else I’ve learned since coming here.

I take a deep breath. “When my parents died, I was there. I saw it. e night patrol—they’re not . . . they’re not subtle. I was blind with grief. I was going to run out aer them. But there was a man in the shadows who caught me and trapped me in the darkness. I thought he was an outlaw. And he was. But not . . . not a smuggler. He was saving lives with stolen medicine. He saved my life.” To my surprise, my throat tightens. I feel like I’m grieving

Wes all over again, in a completely dierent way. “We became . . . friends. We were partners. We helped people.”

“And what became of this friend?”

I wish I still had Quint’s handkerchief. I dab at my eyes with my ngertips. “e night aer you tried to execute the eight smugglers, he wanted to stop. He said it was too dangerous. But I begged him to continue. I didn’t—I didn’t—” My voice catches. I can’t breathe. I press a hand to my chest and close my eyes.

He wasn’t real. Wes wasn’t real. He didn’t die on the wall. He didn’t exist. “He was captured,” says King Harristan.

I swallow. Nod. Breathe. “Look at me.”

I have to force my eyes open. He’s staring at me again, but his voice is no longer impassive.

“What of the people you were helping? What will become of them?”

I swipe at my cheeks. “ey’ll get sick and die,” I say. “Or they won’t. e same as will happen to anyone who doesn’t have the elixir.”

“Finn,” he says, and it takes me a moment to realize he’s not talking to me.

e footman peels away from the wall. “Your Majesty.” “Fetch Quint.”

Quint must not have been far, because he appears in less than a minute.

King Harristan doesn’t even give him time to speak, but Quint must be used to that, because he already has a pen in hand. “I would like a meeting with the palace doctors and apothecaries about the dosage levels in the Royal Sector. Tessa will present her ndings to them tomorrow, and—”

“What?” I squeak.

Quint pauses in his writing to li a nger to his lips, and I clamp my mouth shut.

“I would like a full accounting of the medicine dispensed in each sector by population, along with records of ecacy. Have Corrick review it. Issue a statement that our breech of security was a misunderstanding, that a concerned citizen, an apothecary herself, was merely trying to deliver a reporting of her research to the palace.”

I’m staring at him.

King Harristan looks back at me levelly. “I can’t grant you your life forever,” he says, “but I can grant a few more days to corroborate your story.

I am interested in hearing your theories in more detail.” I don’t know what to say.

“She is overcome with gratitude, Your Majesty,” says Quint.

e king grants him a withering glance. “Out of here, Quint. Take her with you.”

“Indeed.” Quint snaps his book shut and oers me his arm.

ank you?” I whisper. I’m not sure I mean it. I’m not sure if I want to. Quint pats my hand where it rests on his arm. “Come along, my dear.

Etiquette awaits.”

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