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Authors: Jodi Meadows

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BOOK: The Burning Hand
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EIGHT

BEFORE MY EYES, another friend died.

And that was it. Everything faded away, except the rage.

I joined the fight, cutting and slashing at glowmen. First, the one that had been Mercush. Now he was just a monster, because whatever he'd seen in Romily, it hadn't been his sister. He'd stared at her like a challenge, and she'd lost when she looked away.

When she'd looked at me.

My arms shook with exhaustion, and my ribs ached. I thrust my blade deep into the glowman's stomach and twisted. Blood poured out and the reek of wraith filled the warehouse.

I didn't pause as the glowman dropped to the ground, dead. Instead, I was burning up with fury and I brought my blade around and found another glowman, this one thick with drooping jowls and bloodshot eyes. He was crushing a Nightmare's throat. I plunged my sword through his eye.

I lost track of everything but the battle. Hatred drove every thrust and slash of my sword, and every injury I'd taken on in the last week was a faint, distant pain. None of it mattered now. Just this: ducking and stabbing and the certainty that these creatures were no longer human, just monsters twisted by the wraith and chemicals.

And they needed to die.

In a strange place between hyperfocus and instinct, I cut my way through another glowman. Then another. Then another.

Finally, I stood in a warehouse full of bodies, only one more glowman alive, and it fought two Nightmares. The rest of the group was either dead or had fled, like Hensley. That coward.

The Nightmares had knives and rusted pipes, and they fought ferociously. But they were going to lose.

The glowman had talon-like claws that left deep gouges on the Nightmares' faces and chests. They had no hope of winning this battle.

One of the Nightmares noticed me. “Help us!” He spit the last word; blood dribbled down his chin.

“No.”

I lowered my sword and watched the Nightmares lose. I wouldn't kill them. They were still human—a generous classification, considering what they'd brought here. I wouldn't kill them, but I wouldn't prevent the glowman from taking their lives.

They'd aligned themselves with Hensley and sold shine.

They'd come to ambush me.

They'd brought the glowmen.

They'd
lost control
of the glowmen.

They'd die here.

A quiet thought in the back of my head suggested maybe letting the glowman kill the Nightmares was no better than murdering them myself. But then I caught Romily's motionless form on the far side of the warehouse and I didn't care if this made me an awful person, too. I hated the glowmen. I hated the Nightmare gang. I hated Lord Hensley and every flasher who used their magic, contributing to the wraith. Without them, there'd be no shine or firefly and then there'd be no glowmen. Mercush would still be a boy and Romily would be alive. Professor Knight would still be alive.

I hardly registered the hot tracks of tears on my cheeks as the glowman slashed the throat of one Nightmare grunt, and then the other. While the glowman was distracted with murder, I shoved my sword into the base of his skull and into his brain.

The glowman fell lifeless, rattling the floor.

I'd killed them. Glowmen. Monsters.

Romily's brother.

They weren't human anymore, but no matter how much I reminded myself of that fact, a hole opened inside me until it felt as though my soul were being sucked away. I'd done something awful. Something hideous.

My life would never be the same.

The rest was automatic: I cleaned my blade using a dead man's shirt; I stepped around the fallen and knelt in front of Romily; I checked for a pulse I knew I wouldn't find.

Everything drained out of me. The adrenaline from the fight. The certainty I'd felt. Even the pride that I'd won this battle. It was empty.

Carefully, as though she might wake up, I covered Romily in a blood-splattered jacket off one of the dead men. I cradled her in my arms and bit back a fresh wave of tears.

“I don't blame you,” I whispered, even though she couldn't hear me. Even though she'd been gone for . . . I didn't know how long. I didn't know what time it was now. “You were desperate. You took the opportunities you were given. And I failed you. We were going to help your brother, and now—”

A raw sob choked out of me. Romily. Knight. All of this.

It was too much.

There was nothing else to do. I covered her face and stood. Part of me thought I should bring her to her mother, but I didn't know where she lived. And how cruel would that be, bringing a mother her dead daughter? And what about Mercush? I couldn't explain what happened.

So I left the warehouse.

Outside, the air was cooler. Wind drove a small, black object across the dirt. My mask. I seized it just as I heard footfalls on pavement and men shouting orders.

Police, it sounded like. Hensley had gone to find the police like a good, upstanding nobleman.

I shoved my mask over my head, and adjusted the holes over my eyes.

Faintly, I caught Hensley's voice. “They were just around here. The Nightmare gang and that vigilante.”

So he hadn't identified me to the police yet.

But he knew who I was. Everything truly was different now.

I sucked in a ragged breath and ran north along the river, toward Fisher's Mouth, where I turned toward the palace.

James would be waiting for me. I needed to tell him what happened—and figure out how to put it right.

EXCERPT FROM
THE MIRROR KING

Prince Tobiah's adventures, which began in
The Hidden Prince
and
The Glowing Knight
, continue in
The Mirror King
, the sequel to
The Orphan Queen
.

FIVE

“WAKE UP, NAMELESS girl.”

Dawn seeped around the curtains, lighting the dark room into gray. Candles had drowned their flames or been put out—I couldn't remember—and the smothering air of encroaching death had lifted.

Tobiah was still lying on his back, but he'd turned his head and hints of color lit his skin. When our eyes met, his were bright and alert, and so, so familiar.

I sat straight, heart pounding with hope. “You're alive.”

“My dear Wilhelmina, you're amazingly accomplished at stating the obvious.” His voice was groggy, deep with the remnants of his long slumber.

“And you're well enough for sarcasm. I think you'll live.”

His grin was all Black Knife. Because of the mask, it was an expression I'd only sensed before, never seen, but I knew it just the same: the lift of his cheeks, the light in his eyes, and the way
the world seemed to pause.

This was the boy I'd fallen in love with.

Please forgive me for what I'm about to do; know that it is duty and honor that compel me to act against my true feelings
.

Forgive me.

I took a ragged breath. “I should send for your mother. She has no idea you're—” Alive. Awake. He'd been so close to death just hours before.

“In a few minutes.” He closed his eyes. “Just give me a few minutes before I have to be . . . what they all need me to be.” He went still, as though he'd drifted off again, but then he smiled. “You're the one with the no-talking-or-get-stabbed rule. Not me.”

How did he not have a million questions? Maybe he was saving them. “How do you feel?”

His hand moved beneath his blankets, as though touching the bandages or testing the wound. “Like I got shot a month ago.”

“It was yesterday.”

“Yesterday?” He started to sit, biting back a grunt and gasp as blankets fell around his waist. Bandages covered his stomach, but his chest and shoulders were bare, exposing muscles built from years of sword fighting. “Wilhelmina.” His tone turned serious as he took in my appearance: the trousers, the disheveled hair, the knife tucked into my belt as though Patrick might strike again. “How did I recover?”

“How do you think?”

Light grew around the curtains. With a soft groan, Tobiah swung his legs off the bed; trouser hems brushed the tops of his
feet. His dark eyes were wide and warm. “What did you do, Nameless Girl?”

“I couldn't let you die.”

He leaned his whole body toward me, shoulders and chest and face. A hand slipped forward on his knee, almost reaching. “You never fail to amaze me.”

It took everything in me to stay put. Not move. He was for someone else, and for all the questionably moral things I was willing to do, that was a line I could not cross.

The bedroom door swung open and the gas lamps hissed to life, saving me from temptation. James strode in with Francesca and Meredith behind him.

Tobiah tugged on the blankets to cover himself.

The queen regent gave a little shout and hurried to embrace him. Meredith pressed her hands to her chest. Only James didn't seem shocked, but for a whole second he sagged with naked relief.

I moved toward the writing desk, a safe distance away from the reunion. James bent his head toward mine.

“How long has he been awake?”

“A few minutes.”

Across the room, Tobiah was reassuring his mother that he felt fine, and he wasn't going to die. Meredith perched on the edge of the chair I'd slept in, leaning forward with her hands still clasped by her heart. The flush of someone who'd cried herself to sleep was brightening into hope.

“Where were you?” I asked James. “I expected you to be hovering.”

“I had work to do. If you recall, I was made head of palace
security and there was an assassination attempt five minutes later. Then you escaped.” James shook his head. “Apparently, I have a big job ahead.”

He had a point. “So you didn't warn the queen regent and duchess about Connor?”

“I intercepted them on my way here. The royal physicians insisted Her Majesty be, ah,
helped
to sleep last night, and this morning she decided she wasn't happy about it.”

“Hard to blame her,” I muttered.

“Anyway, I thought you were plenty capable of protecting my cousin while I looked into securing the palace. Even if you couldn't, there are half a dozen men of the Indigo Order in the next room.”

“Patrick might have killed Terrell in his sleep, and with nothing more than a knife, but twice now he's attacked Tobiah from a distance.”

“Which is why the windows are shut and there are guards on the balcony. But all of our intelligence suggests Patrick has left the city.”

“That's my thought, too.” The guilt churned in me.

“What are you two talking about over there?” Tobiah lifted his voice, looking beyond his mother, who sat on the bed beside him. “And James, grab a shirt for me. It's chilly.”

James fished through a wardrobe and handed his cousin a solid black shirt before beginning his account of the search for Patrick. And though I wished he wouldn't, he included my involvement with drawings and telling the Indigo Order to search Fisher's Mouth.

“So.” Tobiah finished shrugging on the shirt—Meredith
demurely turned her head—and began buttoning while he spoke. “Lien has yet to be captured.” His gaze cut to me for a heartbeat, then went back to James. “I hope you're still making your best effort.”

“Of course. And while it's likely he's left the city by now, confident of your death, the palace remains on high alert.”

“This brings me to the first of many questions.” Francesca stood and smoothed her gown as she took her place beside Meredith. “Who were those people you brought here last night, Wilhelmina?”

James stilled.

“Captain, do you think I
don't
know when a small gang of youths appropriates one of the best rooms in the palace? They ate through almost a quarter of residents' breakfast before anyone caught them.”

Oh, saints. They'd found the kitchens.

“Of course not.” Somehow, James kept his tone light. “I just didn't expect you to know quite so soon, and without preparation.”

The queen offered a thin smile and turned toward me, waiting for an explanation.

I fumbled. Haughty? Solemn? Kind? I didn't know which mask to put on, so I didn't use one. I exhaled and let her see how much they meant to me. “They're what's left of Aecorian high nobility, kidnapped during the One-Night War. At first, there were nineteen of us. Now there are ten, split down the middle. The night of the Inundation, four came with me, and four went with Patrick.”

“The ones eating their way through the kitchens are yours.”

I nodded.

“Let me make sure I understand correctly. Patrick Lien was once part of your group. You knew he'd killed my husband, yet did nothing to bring him to justice?”

I pressed my mouth into a line. “The wraith had just reached the city. Trying to deal with that and Patrick at the same time would have been impossible. I made a choice that would save lives.”

Francesca's voice flattened. “Your choice nearly cost the lives of my son and nephew.”

The accusation twisted my heart, but I held my posture stiff.

“To be fair,” Tobiah said, “she did tell me yesterday about Lien. We were already in pursuit after the first attempt on me, though.” He glanced at James. “And I think Her Highness would have told me about Father's assassination if I'd bothered speaking to her instead of keeping her confined to her quarters.”

Meredith, silent all this time, granted him a deep smile, like she was proud he'd remembered to be courteous. He ignored her.

“All right,” said the queen. “Allowing that, why did we not know of Lien's location until last night, when Wilhelmina was apprehended outside an inn in White Flag?” She looked at me. “Isn't that when you told Sergeant Ferris to go to Fisher's Mouth?”

“It was at the inn I learned of his location.”

James lifted an eyebrow; he'd been waiting to hear about this, too.

“On my way to fetch the Ospreys, Melanie and I met. She told me where to look.”

“Do you think she warned him?” James's tone was neutral,
but the comment stung. “She did side with him when you split.”

As if I could forget. “Patrick is paranoid; he probably left Fisher's Mouth as soon as she returned. The entire city is hunting him.”

“Let's remember we're not interrogating Her Highness.” Meredith's voice was soft, but everyone looked at her. Francesca's expression warmed. “While questions must be answered, let's not forget that Princess Wilhelmina is our guest.”

“That does lead to another question, though.” Francesca faced me again, a challenge in her eyes. “Why was it that you chose last night to sneak out of the palace and fetch your Ospreys?”

I glanced at James. He nodded.

“Your son wasn't going to live, Your Majesty.” I couldn't make myself look at Tobiah, but even from the corner of my eye I could see his expression of impassive boredom. It was a mask. That face always had been, and I hadn't been able to see through it. But he was listening to every word, every breath, every hesitation. Earlier, he'd asked what I'd done. Here it was: “One of my Ospreys is a healer. A flasher with the power to heal.”

The room went silent.

Tobiah pressed his palm over the bandages and the princely mask dropped away, revealing confusion and betrayal and wonder. “Magic.”

Meredith's eyes were wide.

“I was told you'd sent for a friend.” Queen Francesca's words were soft, but cutting. I'd always thought her meek before, but now I knew that was as much of a mask as anything Tobiah and I wore. “I didn't think much of it. But magic.” She sucked in a
deep breath. “Why wasn't I informed?”

Neither James nor I answered.

“Which Osprey is this? Had he ever used it before? Did either of you consider that what you did is
illegal
? The wraith is already so close.”

“I did consider that.” I pulled myself to my full height. “But I am neither a citizen of the Indigo Kingdom—I was kidnapped almost ten years ago, if you recall—nor have I ever been overly concerned with the law when the law prevents me from doing what is necessary. Remember that last night, my friend was the only thing standing between your son and death. Your son, who is now sitting up and scowling. Alive. And just hours ago, he was slipping toward the saints.”

The queen regent turned her eyes to her son and acquiesced. “And your friend? Had he ever done anything like that before?”

If she was asking about James's miraculous recovery, she didn't give a hint.

“Once. When he was young and didn't know better, he saved a rabbit. We've been hiding his power ever since. There are people who would exploit his gift.” Or arrest him for it. Just months ago, Black Knife would have been one of those people. If caught, Connor would have been taken to the wraithland and sentenced to die by the creatures out there. “He's well read and practiced in more traditional medicine. He knew what he was doing.”

“Very well. Thank you for your part in saving my son.” Francesca seemed to collect her thoughts. “But we will not speak of this again. None of us. Tobiah, we'll tell everyone that you are recovering thanks to the physicians, but you'll need to
stay confined until a reasonable amount of time has passed for you to truly heal.”

Tobiah shook his head. “The law is clear. One week of mourning for the old king, and the new king should be crowned the following day, or risk being challenged. If we delay, either of my uncles could contest my enthronement. Many of Uncle Colin's men are coming from Aecor, so they can attend the memorial and coronation. But if I miss the date and my uncle claims I'm not fit to rule, that means he has thousands of armed supporters at his command.”

“But you're their king. Future king. Would they support him over you?” Meredith's eyes were wide.

“It's a possibility I won't dismiss.” The prince gave a deep nod. “The challenger doesn't even have to be direct family, though they're more likely to have the support they need if they're high in the line of succession. How do you think the Pierces took the throne from the Gearys?”

“So,” said Meredith, “two days until the memorial, and three until the coronation. Few people will believe you've healed so quickly, naturally.”

No one quite looked at James.

I lifted my voice. “Unless you claim the prince knew an attack might happen, and was armored beneath his clothes. You can say this was a ploy to draw out Patrick, and that you allowed everyone to believe the prince's injuries were so grave in order to make him believe he'd succeeded.”

“Dozens of guards saw the bolt go through,” said James.

“They
are
under your command.”

“Give the order.” Tobiah ran his fingers through his hair,
making the strands stand on end. “My recovery doesn't have to be miraculous. I'll play the invalid and rule from bed when I must, but we cannot delay the coronation.”

The crown prince left no room for argument.

“Very well.” The queen regent didn't look happy, but her acceptance caused a sliver of relief to ripple through the room.

In this, at least, we were all five united.

We all had our reasons for needing this: a mother's grieving heart, a fiancée's elevation to queen, a cousin's duty and friendship.

And my reason?

Too complex to name.

“One more thing before I go to share the news that Tobiah will live.” Francesca looked to me. “You could have sent your friend here and gone to find Patrick with the Indigo Order.”

Meredith gasped. “She could have been hurt!”

Francesca waved that away. “Perhaps, though she is a capable young woman and she'd have had a score of guards to protect her.”

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