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Authors: Jodi Meadows

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BOOK: The Burning Hand
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I hated where this was going.

“Would you have been able to track Patrick, assuming he'd truly been there?”

Behind my back, I curled my hands into fists. “Possibly.”

“Why didn't you go?” When I didn't answer immediately, she added, “I'm not asking anything that my husband's brothers won't. There are still those who believe you cut my husband's throat, and without proof that Lien did it—your word that he confessed holds very little weight after your impersonation of Lady Julianna—there's little to keep suspicion off you. Even if there were proof, Lien is still an Osprey and was under your
command during the time of the assassination. So why, a second time, did you allow Patrick to escape?”

“Would you have acted any differently, Your Majesty?”

The queen regent drew back, her eyes cutting to her son, and the answer was clear.

Tobiah slipped off the edge of the bed, using the chair arm for support. Meredith reached up, as though to help, but never quite touched him. “You should have gone after Lien,” Tobiah said. “Your presence wasn't required here. You'd have been more useful tracking him.”

Before I could form any sort of response, a knock sounded and a wiry man in messenger livery came in.

With owl-wide eyes, the stranger glanced around the room and seemed to take in his mistake all at once. The queen. The crown prince. The princess. The duchess. And the Indigo Order captain.

He swung back to the prince standing on his own.

The prince, who should have been on his deathbed.

Our secret was out before it'd even begun.

Tobiah sighed. “What is it?”

“Refugees, Your Highness. Majesty. Highness. Hundreds of refugees are approaching Skyvale.”

“Refugees from which direction?” If they were from the east, that simply meant those who'd left during the Inundation were coming back. If they were from the west, more Liadians—and people from kingdoms beyond—might have made it through the wraithland.

“From the south. They're from Indigo Kingdom villages all along the wraithland border.”

“What does that mean?” Meredith's hands were knots of white knuckles.

The messenger's reply came gravely. “It means the wraith is moving again. Faster.”

SIX

ACTIVITY EXPLODED ACROSS the room.

James, Tobiah, and I started for the messenger. Meredith looked to the crown prince for guidance. Francesca turned her glare on me, as though this were my fault; maybe it was.

But Tobiah could barely stand, let alone walk, so with a pained groan he crumpled. James switched trajectories and the queen regent rushed around Meredith to help move the prince back to his bed.

While the others were busy, I approached the messenger. “What else do you know about the wraith? How fast is it coming? What towns? How many refugees?”

“Nothing. That's all I heard.”

I grabbed the messenger and shoved him against the wall. His head thudded. I held my knife to his throat and growled, “What kind of messenger doesn't get important details and
then barges into the crown prince's chambers? Do you work for Patrick?”

His eyes widened.

“You're too incompetent to be an assassin. Are you trying to lure Tobiah into public so someone else can kill him?”

Meredith let out a peep of surprise, like she hadn't even considered that, but then she saw my knife. “Captain Rayner,” she breathed.

From the corner of my eye, I could see everyone looking at me.

“That's a little excessive, Wil.” James spoke as though I were a spooked animal. “I know him. He's no assassin and he doesn't work for Lien.” He met Tobiah's eyes for a heartbeat, nodded, and came to take the messenger from me. “It's all right.”

The man's face seemed caught between fear and excitement. His wide owl eyes darted around the room, taking in the details.

I stepped aside for James, not putting away my knife. “I don't trust him.”

“You don't trust anyone.” James opened the door to escort the messenger out. “This way, Alain. We—and all of these men—need to have a talk about the crown prince's quarters. . . .”

The door shut behind them, leaving me alone with Tobiah, his mother, and his fiancée. A moment later, muffled yelling came from the other room as James dressed down every guard by name.

I shifted my weight to one hip. “I don't think Alain will keep his mouth shut. The secret is out.” I leveled my eyes on Tobiah. “He saw you standing. A second miracle in as many days.”

“How
did
James heal?” The queen's eyebrows drew in. “Princess?”

“I was locked in my quarters.” My glare landed on Tobiah, who'd managed to sit up straight, but his skin was ashen with the effort. “I was allowed to believe James was dead.”

“Regardless,” Meredith said, her cheeks red as she attempted to forestall another fight, “Princess Wilhelmina is correct. The secret is out. There's nothing we can do right now but hope Alain takes Captain Rayner's request for silence seriously.”

Good luck.

“In the meantime, we'll need to make sure there's room in the shelters for the new refugees.”

“You think we should let them into the city?” Tobiah looked at her across the small distance, his face bland. “The shelters are already so full and food is scarce.”

“They're Indigo Kingdom citizens.”

“Would you feel differently if they were refugees from another kingdom?”

Her lips parted with affront or indecision—I couldn't tell. “Of course not. They're people in need, regardless.”

Tobiah nodded. “Still, with a few noble exceptions”—he motioned at me—“my father didn't allow refugees into the city.”

“You are not your father and the wraith had not touched the Indigo Kingdom while he was in power.”

The crown prince offered a shallow nod. “The gates will be open, my lady.”

Meredith glowed with her triumph. “Thank you.”

Tobiah pressed one palm to his stomach, over the shirt and bandages beneath. A shadow crossed his face. “Now, if
you don't mind, I'd like to rest before the next emergency. My father's memorial is in two days and I plan to be fully recovered by then.”

“I'll leave you to your rest, then.” I replaced my knife and started for the door.

“Wilhelmina?”

I looked over my shoulder to find Tobiah's glare mixed with something like distaste.

“Please change your clothes into something more becoming of a lady of your station. Parading around the palace like that is . . . unseemly.”

I let my voice thin. “If Your Highness wishes to control my wardrobe as well as my movements throughout the palace, consider supplying something more to your taste.”

He gave a bored sigh and roll of his eyes.

I slipped out of the room and through the busy parlor, and headed into the hall. My fingernails carved crescents into my palms.

Meredith caught up with me a minute later. “He shouldn't be so mean to you. Not only did you help save his life, you're a princess.”

I halted in the middle of the hallway and studied her guileless face. She deserved a true answer. Not the whole truth, but some truth, nonetheless. “It's my rank that's part of the problem.” Saints, I wished Melanie were here. “The last thing he expected when I was unmasked, so to speak, was to discover the heir to the vermilion throne. He's already dealing with the wraith problem and his ascension to the throne. I complicate everything.”

“Still,” she said. “It's no excuse for his poor behavior.”

“I'm inclined to agree with you, Lady Meredith.”

Sergeant Ferris followed me. Was he a bodyguard? Spy? Did it even matter? His sidelong looks were skepticism and distrust, with a dash of superiority.
He
was who he claimed to be, while I exchanged one identity for another, as quickly as changing clothes.

I doubted Sergeant Ferris would judge his crown prince so harshly.

But with the death of King Terrell, Black Knife would never go out again. If I didn't know his identity, I wouldn't know why he'd disappeared. I'd have looked for him a few more times, and accepted that he'd been called to do something else. He would have remained a mystery, a dark and lovely memory who haunted my dreams.

Forgive me
, his note had said.
Forgive me
.

“Your Highness.” Sergeant Ferris hauled open the door to my suite, as though I didn't have the strength to do it myself. “Please let me know if you need anything else.”

I ignored him and went into my room.

The wraith boy was exactly where I'd ordered him: under my bed, his pale face peeking out from beneath the blankets hanging over the sides. His chest was pressed against the hardwood floor, not quite on the nearby rug of lamb's wool that warmed my feet every morning.

“You're still here.”

“You told me to wait for you.” His voice was like wind, hollow and ageless, and dangerously powerful.

“I know, but—” Saying I'd hoped he would have left didn't seem wise. “Well, get out from under the bed.”

He shimmied out and jumped to his feet, as though spending the night under my bed hadn't left his limbs stiff or his muscles sore. The tattered indigo jacket hung on his lean frame, not quite covering enough.

We stood there a moment, both of us waiting for my next command. I couldn't look away from him, this strange creature in my quarters. He was wraith, part of the toxic cloud smothering the continent in a white mist that changed the fundamental laws of nature. I'd seen trees growing upside down, and roads rising in the air with nothing to hold them aloft. I'd seen people and beasts that couldn't maintain a size or shape. I'd seen innocents trapped in something clear and solid, just heartbeats away from escape.

Wraith was terrible stuff, of that I had no doubt. But in the shape of a boy, with a voice and a consciousness, was it any different?

I had no idea what to do with him.

But I had to start somewhere. A pile of men's clothing had been delivered; it waited on a cedar chest near the door.

I grabbed underclothes, a shirt, and trousers, and strode across the room, not taking my eyes off his. “What's your name?”

His shrug was a too-fluid ripple. “Do things name themselves in your world?” He cocked his head, lizard-like. Though he'd been completely hairless the night of the Inundation, when I ordered the white mist invading the city to become solid, he now had a fine white fuzz covering his skull. He was somewhere
between comical and cute, at least until I remembered his feral grin and the way his fingers elongated into claws when he attacked. But now, his tone was soft. The way he hunched his shoulders, like a child enduring punishment, was almost sweet and sad. “I had hoped you would name me. You gave me life.”

A frown pulled at me. “I didn't intend it.”

“Didn't you?”

Definitely not. My magic wasn't supposed to work like that. Animating objects wasn't the same as giving them life. This had never happened before, so why now? “What
are
you?”

“I don't know.” The wraith boy shrank a little. “Do I have to put on those pants?”

“Yes.” As if being Black Knife, the lost Princess of Aecor, and a known flasher wasn't damaging enough to my reputation. I couldn't have a half-naked boy in my suite. “Here.” I shoved the bundle at his elbow. “Don't put them on in here. Go into the music room to dress.”

He took the clothes and sighed, but I couldn't tell whether it was the thought of putting on pants or the need to leave the room to do it that exasperated him so much. Beneath his borrowed jacket, his shoulders slumped. “I am a mystery, my queen.”

Chills swept through me. I retreated to the table and lowered myself into the nearest chair. “Explain.”

The wraith boy tugged at his jacket, as though it suddenly wasn't big enough. “You gave me life, but you're unsatisfied. In the changing place, you asked me to save you. And I did. I smothered the locusts. Then I followed you because I wanted to be with you, but you ran. You hid behind the reflections, so I went around. At last I discovered where you had been. I could
feel your presence all through the city, but couldn't find you. Not with the mirrors. So I broke them. And then you came and ordered me to become solid. I hoped to please you. But again, you seemed unsatisfied.”

My breaths came shallow, but I managed the words. “Go on.”

“Though you are responsible for me, I'm not what you want. I could change—do or become anything that you order—but I don't think anything would satisfy you. So I am a mystery, given life for no purpose at all.”

“You had a purpose.”

“To save you from the locusts? To save your city from changing?” The wraith boy spread his arms wide, his clothes dropping with a soft
whumph
. The jacket opened to reveal his chest; I kept my gaze high. “One was over so quickly it hardly matters, while the other was just delaying the inevitable.” He cocked his head. “I told you there would be consequences.”

“What are those consequences?”

He went very, very still. “You might think you've slowed the advance of change. Of wraith, as you call it. But you haven't. It's coming faster to meet with me.”

My stomach and chest knotted.

“Why is it coming to meet you? If you're the wraith that was in the area when I animated it, wouldn't that mean there's less wraith now? You're alive. And solid. You're real.”

“I am those things. I am what you want me to be.” He lifted a hand and pointed an overlong finger toward the door. “Your breakfast is coming. Smells good.”

I barely had time to follow the shift in subject when the knock sounded. “Enter!” I motioned the wraith boy toward the music room. “Go in there and get dressed. Don't mess with anything.”

“Yes, my queen.” He took his clothes and slipped away, just as the door opened and a maid came inside with a tray. She placed my breakfast on the table and after a quick curtsy and inquiry as to whether I needed anything else, excused herself. She was the same maid I'd had since announcing my identity, and I still didn't know her name; she hardly spoke at all.

I sat at the table, famished after missing dinner last night. I hadn't lived in the palace so long that food was expendable, and for any Osprey, wasting food was the highest of crimes, right up there with betraying Aecor by befriending anyone from the Indigo Kingdom.

Well, no one was perfect.

Hours later, James arrived bearing a large leather and canvas bag. The contents thunked as he hefted it onto the table. The strap dangled off the edge. “Your evening wear and accessories, my lady.”

“Truly, you're a man of miracles.”

His smile was strained. Haunted. “If I cautioned you to stay in tonight, would you listen?”

Inside the bag, there were several black shirts and trousers, a pair of knee-high boots, masks, and most importantly: weapons. “This will do.”

James sighed. “That's what I was afraid you were going to
say. Where's your pale friend? I have more orders.”

“He's in the music room. What else, besides delivering my wardrobe?”

He ticked off the items on his fingers. “One: deliver your clothes. Two: ask you to please put the wraith boy in a safer location. Three: assist you in drafting a letter to the people of Aecor announcing your stay here, and the treasonous acts of Patrick Lien.”

“I was already going to do that. I've spent the morning writing notes and a draft.”

“Good. That way it will sound like it actually came from you.”

Who would know, though? For almost ten years, everyone in Aecor believed I was dead.

“Do you want to start with the letter or the transfer? I've already had a nearby space cleaned out, since I don't think he'd stand to be very far from you.”

“Let's move him first.”

“For the best, I think. With the prince's recovery, it won't be long before talk turns to you and this creature.
I
know you slept on Tobiah's chair last night—a scandal on its own—but as far as anyone else is concerned, you slept in your rooms while the wraith boy was here, too.”

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