Once upon a time there was a thief called Nessa.
Nessa knew that all good fairytales started with that sort of thing, which was precisely why she’d always avoided it. Thieves never did well in fairy tales, and she had no desire to summon the attention of the Realms of the Faeries by invoking that particular turn of phrase.
No, she was far more content to skirt around just out of their notice; sneaking through palaces and wizards’ towers, moving quietly in towns and cities and villages. In her early years of thievery she had done this dressed as a servant, but she had quickly learned that servants were amongst the most conspicuous people in the Realms. She would be subjected to scrutiny by all – someone had even once tried to rip her shoes from her feet, forcing her to make a run for it.
Her employers were quite strict about this sort of thing. There were others in the guild who had joined up out of desperation for money, but Nessa had joined for the reliability of the work – for the military structure of things without the painful realities of being a soldier. They delivered her an anonymous contract, she carried it out to the best of her ability and within the organisational guidelines.
Which was part of the reason that particular day went so abysmally.
Nessa had slipped into the nearest Realm by the usual method – waiting for the town clock to strike twelve and then walking into the woods – and made her way to the castle which had been given as her target. She was to secure a particular jewelled necklace that the Queen there prized, and return it to a hut by the river.
It was a pretty standard job, all things considered. There was even a ball on at the palace. This wasn’t a coincidence so much as a statistical inevitability; so many tales had their denouement at palace balls that the monarchy of the Realms were forced to hold them almost constantly. Otherwise you quickly found that the Princess or Prince needed to be fighting a duel whilst also dancing with their spouse-to-be and having an expository argument with their step-parent.
Having done away long ago with the idea of being disguised (everyone in the Realms already was), Nessa took the route of sneaking into the palace. She had dressed for the region, of course – it wouldn’t do to be wandering around in jeans – but still had her Kevlar on underneath. You couldn’t trust royal guards. At least one of them was always working for the villain.
She swung her grapple around to gain speed before hurling it upwards. Her last hook had broken on the wall of a Princess’s tower the night before – thank the goddess for Amazon Prime, who had delivered her a new one well before it was time to leave for work. The teeth gripped into the open window (there was always at least one open window for heroes to use), and Nessa began to pull herself silently towards it.
It was when she entered the room that things started to go wrong.
“…Bayani, what in the Goddess’s name are you doing here?”
The young man paused halfway to reaching for a pile of parchment, answering her question by the grimace that narrowed his lips. “Working. Which I prefer to do undisturbed. What are you doing here?”
“Working. Which I prefer to do without running into idiots.”
Bayani stuffed the scrolls – private correspondence, no doubt – into his satchel. “An attitude like that is going to get you noticed,” he replied coolly, ruffling his short hair. “Getting noticed is what gets you killed.”
“Don’t quote the guidelines at me like they still apply to you.” Nessa swung her feet down to the ground and folded her arms over her tunic. “Or like you ever cared about them in the first place.”
“I cared.” Stepping forward, Bayani made his way towards the window, grazing against her elbow with deliberate disdain. “That was the problem. Luckily for you, you’re as heartless as the villains in this place.”
Then he slid down out of the window, leaving Nessa so infuriated that it took her several minutes to realise that he’d used her rope. And her new grappling hook – which, as he landed on the ground, he tugged out of the sill before she could make a lunge for it.
The first guideline was always to have an escape route; there went hers. Cursing under her breath, Nessa crossed the study she’d found him in and began to listen at the door: nothing. She stepped out into the corridor, closed the door carefully behind her, and made her way confidently down the hallway – as if she was meant to be there. The second guideline was to not be seen, but to blend in if you must.
“Pardon me,” she said politely to one of the servants as she passed them, stepping out of the side just in time to avoid his armfuls of linens. He eyed her suspiciously as she passed – definitely, then, he was one of the busybody sort of servant. Wonderful.
But he did not stop her as she moved on, turning into the wing where the Queen resided. Her intel had been good, at least. From there, it went much more smoothly: she stepped into the empty bedroom with silent footfalls and gloved fingers (guideline three – leave no trace of your presence), then located the jewellery boxes surrounding the dressing table.
Opening each one in turn, Nessa memorised their placement before beginning to search through them. It took several minutes to locate the necklace her client desired – a torque of the sort that, in another world, her mother had worn when she was young. White enamel with green emeralds, rubies and diamonds adorning it. Nessa hated jewellery, but even she could see its appeal.
“It is lovely, isn’t it? One of my favourites.”
The fourth guideline was to always be aware of your surroundings. Damnit.
Turning, Nessa looked up into the image of a perfect fairy tale monarch. She was diminutive, with long black hair that flowed almost to her hips. She wore a shimmering blue and silver kimono that reminded Nessa of a peacock’s plumage, along with a narrow crown that spilled sapphire trails into her hair to frame her face.
“I must agree, your majesty,” Nessa replied at once, holding the torque aloft so that it glittered in the lantern light. There was nothing else to do but run with the unexpected. Otherwise the unexpected tended to pay a lot more attention to you. “Such exquisite craftsmanship. Your kingdom is renowned for its dwarven mines, I understand?”
The Queen’s lips twitched into a smirk. “What kingdom is not renowned for its mines? I daresay it is the dwarves that ought to be renowned, not my lands.”
“I think they are. Perhaps you should be commended for having managed to negotiate with them for so long.”
“Indeed.” Taking a step forward, the Queen cocked her head and examined Nessa so intently that she found herself forced to look away. “You are kind to say it – and yet, I cannot help but feel that we are dancing rather neatly around the room’s incumbent elephant.”
“Tell me truthfully why it is that you wish that necklace, and I shall gift you it.”
Nessa paused. It went against at least half a dozen of the guidelines. You were never meant to interact with your mark, let alone negotiate or make a deal with them. However, she had been caught as red handed as one could be. It was very possible that this was the only way out.
Well, in for a penny.
“I’ve been contracted to steal it from you. I don’t know who by, or for what reason they wish it. So, really, I would like it so that I can do my job – though if you gift me it, I’m arguably not doing my job at all.”
“Mm.” As the Queen turned, Nessa caught a glimpse of her eyes – which, though chocolate brown, had flashed briefly with a glimmer of silver. Strange. “That would be logical. How might we best rectify the situation for you, then? I might agree to leave, perhaps. Then we have made no accord over the necklace itself, and you would of course be free to do as you wished.”
“Uh – why?”
“I mean,” Nessa said, looking between the torque and the Queen, “I’m stealing from you. Why are you letting me go?”
The Queen smiled, the first brilliant expression that had lit up her otherwise placid features. “Because,” she replied, “you are the most interesting thing that has happened to me all week. Good night, dear…”
“Nessa. I am Chiyo.”
Moments later, Chiyo was gone. Nessa was left standing in the monarch’s bedroom, a glimmering torque necklace in her hands, alone with the dozens of questions that were beginning to form in her mind. But this was not the time to attend to them. She wrapped the necklace in a skein of velvet from her satchel, stowed it away, and made sure everything was back in place within the room.
Silently she stole out of the Queen’s own window, lowering herself down the stonework with strenuous but careful movements until she was at the bottom of the castle once more. Then she made her way to the forest, along the river, and delivered the necklace to an old crone in a hut – all the time acting as if absolutely nothing at all had gone wrong with the job.
But Nessa knew fairy tales. She knew that when Things Happened, they came back to haunt you.
On the upside, she didn’t have to wait long.
Back home in the city, Nessa wove through the bustling streets on autopilot. There were lanterns and banners hanging throughout the market parades; it was almost Diwali. She was going to miss the feast, again, which wasn’t the worst outcome. She had always had a love-hate relationship with crowds. They were useful to her, but she abhorred them.
Turning briefly back onto Janpath, Nessa skirted the worst of the crowds before descending back into the market and towards the guild. She spotted one or two guild members in the crowds as she passed, though they wouldn’t have been working – the last guideline was not to piss on your own doorstep.
It was late afternoon in the real world, which she would never be able to get her head around. The Realms didn’t work on anything as simple as timezones – rather there were some areas that were always at particular times at day, some that seemed to progress at random, ever-changing speeds, and some that didn’t even have night and day in the traditional sense.
Mostly, it made for really confusing jet lag.
“You’re back late,” remarked Estela, handing her a debrief form through the reception grate. “Everything go alright?”
Nessa shrugged, batting her fringe out of her eyes. “Ran into someone I didn’t expect, but otherwise all good. The drop was clean.”
“Great! Oh, Jyoti would like to see you – they’re in their office.”
The Guildmaster wanted to see her? That wasn’t good. That was never good. Nodding in thanks, Nessa turned on her heel and headed up the spiral stairs towards Jyoti’s office. It reminded her of being summoned to the headmistress’s office during school – something that had happened so infrequently that it was all the worse when it did.
She could hear voices on the other side of the door, but it wouldn’t do to keep Jyoti waiting.
“Come in,” the guildmaster called in the wake of her polite knock. “Ah, Nessa. Come and have a seat, please. I assume you remember Bayani?”
Halfway through the door, Nessa froze. Her mouth fell slightly agape, and she tilted her head. “I do, yes.”
“I should hope so,” Bayani remarked from his comfortable seat opposite the guildmaster’s desk. “It’s hardly that long since we saw each other.”
“Ah, indeed. Bayani tells me the two of you ran into one another during your assignments.”
Nessa frowned as she closed the door behind her. “I wasn’t aware that Bayani was back with the guild.”
“He is not – at least, not in the sense you are implying.” Jyoti leant back in their chair. They were long-limbed and slender, almost dwarfed by their surroundings in physicality and yet dominating the room with their presence. “Bayani is a client.”
“Traditionally, we don’t allow clients to engage in the work with us.”
Jyoti smirked, eyes gleaming. “This is not a traditional assignment. It is one that employs the entire guild on a number of linked jobs. In fact, you have already completed one.”
Resisting the urge to twitch, Nessa nodded her head. She hated being kept in the dark – she had joined the guild precisely because it was so up-front about things. “I see. May I ask the nature of the assignment as a whole?”
“No,” Bayani snapped, at precisely the same time as Jyoti replied, “Of course.”
The two of them exchanged a glance that was more of a contest for dominance. Brown eyes stared defiantly into swirling pools of grey and green, knitted eyebrows against raised ones. Nessa resisted the urge to laugh; there was no way Bayani was going to win that one.
“This remains my guild,” Jyoti pointed out, gesturing to themselves with a perfectly manicured hand. “I will run it as I see fit, thank you. Your group are paying us precisely because they trust us to get the work done. If I think that my operatives need to know what is going on, then I will tell them. Is that understood?”
“Fine. You know what, I have better things to do.”
As Bayani flounced out of the room, Nessa chuckled – before quickly thinking better of it. “Sorry.”
“You are not fond of him, I think.”
“He’s uncontrollable. He thinks that he knows better than everyone, and never thinks about the consequences of stepping outside of the guidelines that were set down for him. He’s – well, frankly, Guildmaster, he’s just like the people from the Realms.”
Chuckling, Jyoti looked up at her. “Did you never ask Bayani where he was from, dear?”
“I thought he was from Manila.” He’d told her that, she was certain. Of course, he’d never cared for the rules, which were quite strict about being honest with your guildmates. She cursed under her breath. “It would be just like him to lie.”
“I worry,” Jyoti said, leaning forward, “that your dislike of him could cloud your judgement. We will be working with him and his companions for some time on this assignment.”
Their voice was gentle, but it felt to Nessa as if she had been slapped. “I would never allow -”
“You would never intend to. But you might. Bayani may break rules because he thinks that he knows better, but you think you are better because you follow them so strictly.”
The events of Nessa’s assignment rushed back to her in a flood. She had broken at least half a dozen guidelines; if she lied on her debrief she would break just as many more. She was a hypocrite. She couldn’t even live up to Jyoti’s criticism. Her mother was right; she was a failure.
“Nessa, dear,” Jyoti continued with a sigh, “I am sorry. I did not mean to put that so strongly. You must understand that this is unlike any job we have taken before, and it is truly important that we are all unified in our work.”
“I understand, Guildmaster. I will do my best to – work with him.”
“Thank you. I am in the process of assigning the bulk of the tasks placed in our hands. Take the rest of the day for yourself; tomorrow Estela will issue you with your own task.”
Nessa nodded, and shuffled uncomfortably on the spot as she waited to be dismissed. In traditional Jyoti fashion, it took them an excessively long time to ‘notice’ her distress and instruct her to go.
The conversation stuck in her mind as she filled out and handed in her debrief form – which much to her unease entirely omitted much of the truth – and headed back through the market to the metro. By the time she was locking the door to her flat behind her, Nessa’s feelings had coalesced into a single, blaring thought.
Jyoti was wrong; she wasn’t just biased against Bayani, or blinded by her dislike of him. There was something wrong, very wrong, with the whole situation.
First of all, any job that required the entire guild to participate in order to complete it was far too large and noticeable to be the sort of job the guild should be taking. Don’t be seen – it was there, the second guideline, and now they were going to send a hundred people into the Realms on, fundamentally, the same assignment?
Not to mention that Jyoti had sidestepped telling her what the actual assignment was. Even after giving Bayani a speech about being honest with their operatives – she had walked from the room too discombobulated to notice it, but the journey home gave her time to realise what had happened. She had been tricked by them into thinking she had gotten an answer, but actually receiving none at all.
But it wasn’t her job to question. She was better than Bayani, who would have gone off on his own to work out what was wrong. She was a loyal member of the guild, she trusted the Guildmaster, and she had to believe that if they weren’t telling her something that there was a reason. That they wouldn’t have taken this job for the guild if it wasn’t safe.
It wasn’t a choice that helped her sleep that night.
When Nessa stepped back into the Realms of the Faeries, it was to a dismal rainstorm that hammered relentlessly down upon her. Raising her hood, she made her way quietly through the woods, clutching a basket to her chest. It was ostensibly full of narrow bamboo reeds, the sort used for weaving – beneath it were rope, rations, binoculars, a notebook, and her gun (in accordance with the seventeenth guideline – go nowhere defenceless).
Her assignment, which she had of course memorised upon receipt – no one was allowed to take their briefing documents out of the guildhall – swam through her mind as she walked. It was simply correspondence theft, much like Bayani had been attending to the day before, but the location bought the complexity. Though Nessa had not visited this particular building, her brief had instructed her that it was regularly frequented and would require careful timing.
After several hours of sodden walking, she began to see the curved eaves of the building. It was not a single building, but three or four – one growing out of the other as if they had each been built at differing times. Water cascaded off the roof, splashing at the base of the veranda that extended the whole way around. Even from a distance, Nessa could see the shadow of bodies moving around; some through the half-shuttered windows, and others just outside.
Pushing her nagging sense of unease back down – it had not left since her meeting with Jyoti and Bayani – Nessa began to stroll forwards, keeping carefully to the path to maintain her appearance as a bamboo cutter.
As she passed the buildings, she took stock of the people within and without its painted walls. There were two conversing outside in low voices; they looked up at her briefly as she passed, before returning to their conversation. She counted three others as she glanced through the shutters to their forms, which were silhouetted against the paper-thin walls inside. All were dressed in the local style, but they seemed a strange breadth of wealth. Some had rags, whilst others were in finer, tailored clothes.
But within moments she had passed them, and could no longer inspect them without becoming too obvious. Instead she focused on the building itself. Aside from the first door she had passed, there were two more; one on each square of the multi-part building. The windows were low and large enough to use as means of entry or exit, though the metal hinges looked worn – they would likely be too loud to adjust, which given the rain reduced her options for getting in.
Walking far enough from the building to go out of sight, Nessa buried her basket within a bush and took out its concealed contents. Begrudgingly, she removed her large outer cloak and pulled up the hood of her coat, hoping the waterproofing spray she’d used on it back in New Delhi would hold. Then, carefully, she began to approach the building once more.
A nearby tree provided her with both cover and somewhere to sit as she watched people come and go from the building. Over the hours that followed, as the sun began to start falling towards the edge of the horizon, the five women and men inside changed positions and occasionally left for periods of time. Gazing through her binoculars, Nessa had worked out that it seemed unlikely that all of them lived there – though the buildings were large, many of them seemed to be given over to meeting rooms. She changed tree once or twice, but could only ever see one bedroom within the building.
As she watched, Nessa attempted to ignore a good number of the questions running through her mind. It seemed unlikely that she was here to steal personal correspondence; was this a business, perhaps? It wouldn’t be the first time they had been hired by one company to undermine the work of another. But what sort of business here was run by both the gentry and the commonfolk?
No, she wasn’t going to think about that. She was just going to do her job, and –
What was that?
Rocking onto her toes, Nessa padded silently from the heart of the tree onto its thickest branch, which lay parallel to the earth. There were two figures, one slim and one round, approaching from the shadowed east – and there was metal glinting in their hands. Were they tiger claws? No – they were blades of some sort, like two crescents resting on top of one another, a smooth edge sticking above the knuckles.
They were heading for the building, making a beeline for one of the windows that was furthest open. Nessa could’ve kicked herself for not seeing them earlier – they must’ve been watching the building for a reasonable amount of time to spot that this was the best way in. They were being quiet, but not trying to be invisible – which gave Nessa the nagging feeling that they didn’t intend to leave without being noticed.
Besides, peaceful visitors didn’t tend to arrive with weapons drawn.
The guidelines made it clear that in the event of combat, the guildmember was to defend themselves, execute their mission as swiftly as possible and extricate themselves from the situation. But Nessa wasn’t involved in the fight – she was a good fifty feet away, and up a tree to boot. No one knew she was here. She could just stay, up in the tree, and nothing bad would come of it.
Once again, the sickening feeling of knowing she had transgressed settled upon her chest. She had broken the guidelines the day before – was she really going to ignore them again? If a fight was going to happen she should be in there, in the chaos, swiping what she needed and getting out before anyone noticed she wasn’t part of the fight. Briefly Nessa wondered if she was afraid – but no, that wasn’t it. Violence was a fact of life in the Realm, and she had seen enough of it to stomach it.
So as the pair of assassins – for she was certain that was what they were – came close to the window, Nessa took hold of her rope and slid silently to the base of the tree. She wasn’t going to fail the guild, not again.
Crouched behind several sprawling bushes, she heard the creak of the shutters even over the continually driving rain. One of the two cursed at the other in a language she vaguely recognised – they were at least, it seemed, locals. A few moments of scuffling past, and Nessa lifted her head to see that the coast was clear.
She gave it twenty seconds before following in their wake, and had just clambered silently into the building when she heard the first screams. They were coming from her right, down the corridor and past several narrow walls and sliding doors, some of which were half-ajar. Ignoring them, Nessa moved directly down the corridor ahead of her, towards where she could see a room with a changing screen.
It was the most obvious of hiding places, but fortuitously it was not quite what it seemed – rather than being within a bedroom it was in fact a study. Nessa ducked behind the screen, where a dark wooden desk was set up. As she wondered whether or not it might contain the letters she was here to steal, there was a crashing sound from her left. With years-honed reflexes, Nessa dived beneath the desk and drew the daggers sheathed in her boots all in one movement.
The exclamation was followed by a hideous scream, and the sickening sound of blades scraping bone – they were close to her. Too close. Feet slammed against the floor behind her, and something heavy smashed through the screen and landed heavily against the desk.
“Guess you’re not very good at running,” smirked a voice that sounded eerily calm in the chaos of the assault. Their accent was local, but lacking in dialect – too smooth and too plain. “Oh, I’m sorry – did that hurt?”
“I -” gurgled the man who was pinned to the desk, his nails scraping against the wood. “No.”
“A liar! But of course you are, darling. Of course you are. For who amongst your group is not a liar, hmm? You lie to yourselves, to the Realm, to everyone.”
Nessa could see the edge of the speaker’s trousers, now – she inched herself closer to the back of the desk, trying not to breathe too loudly. If she was found, she was as dead as the man above her.
“I am – not. Not a li…liar. You are. Those who stand against her a-”
The man’s bravery was quickly cut off by a sickening squelching sound. Behind her, Nessa could hear blood splashing against the floor. “Your Queen,” the captor said, still as calm as ever, “will fall just as you have. Only slower – much slower. I will make sure of it myself. The Olive Dynasty will end with Chiyo, end as it should have done centuries ago.”
Above Nessa, the royalist met a sticky and unpleasant end – but she had tuned out of the sounds. She had tuned out of almost anything, except the memory of chocolate and silver eyes, of blue robes, of mercy when she deserved none.
Nessa was under no illusions; she was not a good person. She had just sat, silently, as a man was murdered inches from her. She had watched an entire building of people get gunned down and done absolutely nothing. She did her job, and she did it well, and that was enough for her. Routine and the expected; a strict way to deal with the unexpected when it did occur. All things considered, she should hate the woman who broke her out of that pattern.
The assassins made their way out of the room, chuckling to themselves with eerie and almost familiar sounds that echoed through the house of the dying and the dead. Nessa heard it, but only barely – for she had come, painfully and suddenly, to a realisation. She wasn’t going to search the house for letters. She wasn’t going to finish her assignment at all.
She was going straight to the palace.
Getting out of the house was simple once the assassins had left – after all, no one remained to notice her. The most worrying part was that she didn’t consider going back to get the contracted letters. Not for a moment. She simply walked onwards, her feet drawing her through the forest towards the castle that loomed on the horizon.
As she walked, Nessa listed to herself the number of guidelines she was breaking. It didn’t help. Even cataloguing her failures did not serve to diminish them.
Perhaps she had just spent too much time in the Realms. She wouldn’t be the first – there were plenty of stories of thieves and others who had ventured into the Realms of the Faeries a few too many times and eventually never come home. The guild wrote them off each year as acceptable casualties.
When she had joined the guild, Nessa had tried to explain to her mother – a hard-edged, no-nonsense woman who had spent all of Nessa’s youth insisting she studied hard and got a ‘proper’ job – that the structure and discipline of the organisation would do her good.
This had probably been undermined by the fact that she also wasn’t able to tell her mother exactly what it was she would be doing. But for Nessa, the conversation hadn’t been just for her mother’s benefit – it had been to convince herself, too. She had longed for structure, but feared the chaos of the Realms.
And now she was running towards a Faerie Queen’s castle to warn her that she was about to be assassinated.
She had stopped just long enough on the way out to grab the contents of her basket – at least, the parts that she needed. She stuffed the rations into her mouth and the binoculars into her pocket, affixed the silencer onto her gun and loaded it as she ran.
Guideline fifty-six: do not use noticeable technology within the Realms, especially weaponry, unless absolutely necessary.
“I get a pass on that one,” Nessa grumbled to herself, remembering the crunch of the man on the desk. “It’s necessary.”
It was both a great deal of time and no time at all before the palace became less of a silhouette and more of a fully formed structure. She could see details: guards walking along the parapets, petitioners queuing in the streets to get an audience with the Queen.
Damnit. If it was audience day, then the assassins would have no trouble getting in at all. But then, neither would she.
So Nessa threw herself through the streets of the Royal Town, which was named so like all such towns in the Realms. She kept her gun concealed under her cloak and slipped through the crowds, apologising and making excuses as necessary here and there, pretending to be moving into the street across only to weave back in further along the queues of people.
She would have no way of knowing if she had gotten there ahead of them. She just had to hope that they took longer to move – they were a group, and she was one person. It might be enough.
It might not.
“Your name?” asked the Royal guard at the gates, when she finally snuck herself into the head of the queue.
It seemed pointless to lie at this point.
“And which village are you from?”
Alright, not entirely pointless. “The one by the river.” There was always one by the river.
“The petition you wish to put before Her Royal Majesty?”
Nessa hesitated, and made a show of looking down at her feet. She had never been an incredible actor; good enough to get by, and remain unnoticed. Being under scrutiny made her nervous. “It’s of a personal nature, sir. The troubles of the women in my village, and myself. The elders in our village are male – they don’t understand, we were hoping that she -”
The guard held up a hand. “Yes yes, that’s enough. In you go. You’ll be up after the farmers’ guild.” He looked her over critically. “You’re not carrying anything?”
Nessa shook her head and held out her hands for inspection, grateful that she had dressed as an average townsperson – one unlikely to have daggers in their boots or a gun in the back of their trousers. Her heart felt like it was going to beat its way out of her chest.
Eventually, the guard nodded, and waved her in. She did her best not to look relieved.
This was a part of the Royal Palace she had not seen before, but once you’d seen one you’d seen all of them. There was a courtyard, which mostly served to be lined with the sort of guards that were just there for show. A trail led up to the palace entrance, through which she was ushered by a whiskered man in a tailcoat. He had vulpine ears poking out of his thinning white hair.
“If you’ll wait just here, my dear,” he murmured, gesturing for her to take a seat on a white-and-gold chair outside the audience chamber. The doors towered two stories high, and had been engraved with an exquisite floral pattern. They were probably worth more than she had ever earned.
She wondered, idly, if anyone had ever been hired to steal doors.
It took an excruciatingly long time for the farmers’ guild to finish their petition, during which time Nessa was left to wonder whether the farmers’ guild were the guise under which the assassins had decided to enter, and whether she ought to be storming the giant, weighty doors.
They left just as her patience was beginning to thin, and she was led into the Queen’s chamber.
It was a long room that was rendered narrow only by the sheer length of it. It had to run the entire depth of the palace, for it took a minute of walking at a reasonable pace to go from one end to the other. As she approached, Nessa saw the Queen’s throne – it was crafted from driftwood, stained white and edged in ice blue and metallic gold.
Chiyo lounged upon it with the effortless poise of a monarch – but as Nessa approached, she sat up in her seat, brow dipping then rising as she attempted to understand what was happening.
“Your majesty,” announced the whiskered man, “the next petitioner.”
“Thank you, Graves. You may attend to the next one, and leave us with this petitioner. We will not require your assistance.”
He departed with a bow, leaving them as alone as Nessa imagined they were going to get – there were guards flanking the throne, and lining the room in the alcoves either side of it, but they were never going to leave.
“I was not expecting to see you again,” the Queen remarked, dropping out of the formal tone. “What brings you to my palace?”
It felt like everything sat upon her at once: the sound of the man dying on the table, the pain in her legs from running for so long, the sense that she had been sent into a trap.
She had lost her capacity to play the games of the Realms. The desire to be anywhere near them. “There are assassins coming to kill you.”
Chiyo tilted her head to the side. “There are always assassins coming to kill me, dear thief.”
“I mean right now,” Nessa sighed, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “I was on a contract, the house was hit by two assassins, they killed everyone in the building. They said…they said…”
She couldn’t remember. She stared at the ground, looking into the pattern on the tiled floor, but couldn’t separate the sounds of death from the sounds of their words. Something soft and cold touched her cheek – a hand.
When had the Queen gotten down from her throne?
“Why are you here?” Chiyo asked, her placid expression shifting into a deep frown.
Nessa bit her lip. “I don’t know.”
“Why do I trust you?”
Chiyo laughed – a soft, warm sound that seemed to wash away some of Nessa’s fatigue – and then she reached her hand out to the side and murmured a single, percussive word in an arcane tongue. A silver blade, narrow and curved, appeared in her hand.
For a brief moment, Nessa thought she was about to die.
“Captain Horwood, this is one of my most trusted spies. She has warned me of an impending assassination attempt. Initiate defensive protocol delta.”
The room erupted into activity, but Nessa paid no attention to the guards as they began moving into place. She heard the doors close at the end of the room, calls for backup and reinforcement, preparation of a route out for the Queen. But it all seemed distant in comparison to the single thought that resounded in her head.
The Faerie Queen in front of her wasn’t a Faerie Queen at all.