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Meg Falkyn never wore silk again.
She stewed, half-hidden behind a marble pillar, because she'd worn her maroon brocade robe to court twice already. Now Janat, her younger sister, twirled among the glittering dancers on the polished parquet floor in a froth of golden silk, in the fitted and belled style they'd seen in Arcan. Silk, brought by a trader all the way from Aadi-of-the-Valley, a gift from Mama for her fifteenth birthday.
The dance was boring.
The king and queen were deep in conversation with a wealthy merchant and his wife, and old Nanna, their stout, soft nurse, gossiped with a gaggle of servants. Rennika played dolls on the floor with the king's daughter. Embarrassing. She was eleven. But at least she was well to one side of the dancing.
Meg was sending a silent prayer to Kyaju, Goddess of the Devout, for the tedium to be over, when across the room she saw her mother's face tighten.
A disheveled courier in mud-splattered wool and leather stood by her, white-faced. A letter trembled in Mama's hand.
Mama's ivory robes and shifting complexion stood shock-stark against the splintered swirl of dancers. An instant of comprehension — and implication — was etched on her face.
Color and dark. Movement and stillness. Festivity and terror.
The musicians played a flourish and the dancers applauded.
Mama's gaze leapt over the dance floor, searching. Janat was there, clapping delightedly.
Meg took a half-step forward, pulse ticking, afraid to move through the crowd lest she miss unfolding ramifications.
Muted by the din of the rekindled music, Mama spoke insistently to the courier. He shook his head. She questioned him again, sharply, and again the answer was in the negative. She folded the letter and signaled Nanna.
Mama beckoned Rennika, and the little girl ran to her mother's side. Meg shouldered her way through the shifting patterns of dancers, touched Janat on the elbow and caught her eye. Puzzled, Janat followed.
Mama was bent over, stroking Rennika's hair and holding her close when Meg came to her side. "Rennikala, you must listen to me." Mama kissed her daughter's forehead. "I need you to be very calm."
"No, Mama! You have to come, too."
The panic in Meg's stomach bloomed, prickling her skin from the inside.
"I have duties here. Nanna will be with you." She looked up at Meg and Janat. "And your sisters."
This was it. The thing — the unknown. Mama had told her. But Mama had known so little for sure.
Rennika fastened her hands around Mama's neck, but Mama disengaged her fingers and held them. "You must not make a sound. You must not let anyone know you are going." The fear in Mama's eyes stilled the girl's outburst.
Mama kissed her and thrust her to Meg's side, then gave Meg and Janat a kiss on the forehead and a quick embrace. "Nanna."
Nanna nodded and led the way toward the side of the ballroom. Meg guided Rennika, following Nanna through knots of fine ladies and gentlemen gossiping and watching the dance. Behind, she saw Mama speak to the courier. The courier insisted, and Mama, dread and concern in every line of her face, turned and melted into the crowd.
* * *
To begin with, Rennika found the hush and hustle from the ballroom bewildering; but more, the look on Mama's face and her words had lodged a tight ball of dread in Rennika's chest. "Look at me," Mama had whispered. "You're eleven years old. You must be strong."
Rennika's unease only grew as she ran, following her sisters and Nanna down the dimly lit steps, trying to keep her feet beneath her. At the landing, Nanna rushed them down the passageway to the servants' quarters, peering into each dark doorway and cross corridor. Rennika's heart thumped as it did when she narrowly missed being caught in a game of Catch Thief. Something was very wrong. Mama should be coming with them.
One of the kitchen boys — Brin, with the freckles — rounded a corner and stopped in surprise. He stood to one side as they entered Nanna's apartment, but Nanna smacked him upside the head. "You say a word about seeing us here, Boy, and Magiel Falkyn will turn you to stone!" She meant Mama.
A scream from the scullery startled them all. Then a wave of cries and shouts broke the silence, and the boy pelted down the hall.
* * *
The rags Nanna dumped at their feet were peasant clothing. Meg could see Janat's bafflement as she stared at them. Rennika poked them distastefully with her foot.
"Get dressed," Nanna commanded, fixing the candle to a holder on the table and rummaging through a drawer.
Meg thought with a strange detachment, Janat would have obeyed, had she known how.
Then the moment broke and Meg took her sister by the shoulders and spun her around. Finding the thread that closed the back of her dress, she bit it.
"What are you doing?" Janat cried.
"Hold still." Nanna had a knife in her hand. She slit Meg's robe up the back. Nanna released Meg and turned to Rennika.
Fists pounded on the door and they stilled, staring at the blank wooden panels and the rattling bolt.
Meg's robe collapsed about her feet and she shivered in the chill, staring at the door.
"Shift. Chemise. Everything but your death tokens," Nanna whispered.
More fists on the door. "Open! In the name of King Artem Delarcan!" Then shouts and running footsteps resounded in the corridor, followed by silence.
"Hurry." Meg threw a robe and tunic and leggings to Janat and pulled out smaller clothing for Rennika. She tied a rope around Rennika's robe, working silently and efficiently.
"Open up!" A man's voice penetrated the door, and terror grew in her stomach. Then, the rhythmic thumping of shoulders broke the spell and she threw on her own ragged clothes.
The battering stopped, and a chaos of shouts and swords clashing filtered from the room beyond the corridor. Someone — engaged the soldiers in battle? This was it. The thing — the unknown thing Mama had seen.
Nanna grasped Rennika's arm and pushed Janat ahead into a small bedroom. Meg grabbed the candle and flung the door closed behind them.
A thwack, like something heavy striking the door to the outer chamber, split the cacophony.
* * *
Rennika tripped over the clothes Meg had tried to fit to her. The world had gone mad. But the scariest part was the fear on her sisters' faces. Rennika never cried when she scraped a knee or got punched by a royal cousin who didn't get his way. But she wanted to cry, now.
"Who's attacking us?" Janat whispered. "And how did they get past the castle wall? And the city gates?"
Nanna pushed back a drape. Thin starlight spilled over her shoulders. "Soldiers in the garden. In the colors of King Artem."
"Soldiers — fighting King Ean's men?" Janat asked. "But why?"
Nanna tried the window. It wouldn't open. She pulled the drapes back and with a strength Rennika didn't know the old woman had, picked up a chair and smashed it against the small panes. The chair bounced off, and the window remained intact.
"Wait. Let me. It's warded." Meg gave the candle to Janat, then cupped the lock in her hands. Meg was going to cast a spell without ingredients! Not worldling magic, potions anyone could do from a spell book — but real magiel magic, like Mama's.
Shouts and the clash of steel rang out, both behind them and ahead. But the ward was Mama's, and Meg would know its shape. Rennika did.
The sound of the door bursting open exploded in the next room as the window swung wide.
* * *
Flickering red lit the pavement and walls. Meg and her sisters crouched beneath a wagon in the bailey. The smell of smoke from beyond the great hall filled the air — something burned in the city.
None of this could be real. It couldn't.
Soldiers ran across the cobbles and skirmished in small groups. A handful of King Artem's men in uniforms of gold and green braced themselves at the steps before the main hall doors, taking courtiers and ladies prisoner or cutting them down as they fled King Ean's court. The noise, the smell, was sharper, more horrifying than a nightmare. Soldiers lay like black lumps on the pavement. Some moaned or tried to crawl. Some were still. The nauseating stink of excrement and blood reminded Meg of the butcher's shed in the fall.
Something ... a blur, a mist? ... seemed to crawl among the dead. Meg squinted, trying to focus. No. Nothing clear. Perhaps a trick of the dark, or of the inconstant torchlight.
A company of Artem's men rounded the corner of the great hall, rushing King Ean's soldiers. "Run!" Nanna hissed.
Meg tugged Rennika's hand and sprinted through the castle gates. Oh, Gods —
The soldiers, busy with their swords, took little heed of them, as if they were no more than fleeing servants.
They bolted onto the wide boulevard that wound its way from the castle toward the main city gate. Two of King Artem's men managed to run from their quarrels to give chase.
Nanna darted into a lane. Janat, panting, followed her.
There was a shout and a thump and the sound of a man stumbling and falling. Someone — an archer? — had felled one of their pursuers.
The second set of footsteps echoed behind them. Meg hurled spell words onto the cobbles, calling for a stone to find a time when it had risen above its mates. The soldier stumbled and fell to the pavement, striking his head.
Nanna plunged to a stop in the side street, leaning against the façade of a grand house, wheezing. Meg released Rennika's hand, letting her slide to the ground. By Kyaju, it had been close.
"That was a lucky spell," Janat said.
Meg leaned on her knees, blowing hard. She couldn't do another one of those. Not without potions.
Footsteps and shouts echoed in the streets. The smell of burning sharpened.
"Nanna," Meg panted, "what did Mama tell you? She had you find us these clothes. Did she —"
"Merchant Cordal," Nanna muttered, holding her side as if she had a stitch.
"Who?" The name had a familiar ring, but Meg couldn't place him.
"In the artisan's quarter," Nanna heaved. "He ... can get you to safety."
Mama had known what was going to happen. "Where?" Meg pressed. "What did she tell you?"
"I don't know!" Nanna looked sick, as if she hadn't believed Mama. "Tomorrow," she whispered. "I was supposed to take you tomorrow. I was supposed to say we were going on an outing to the market ..."
"So, we need to get to Merchant Cordal." Janat leapt to something they could do. But — "How will we get a coach?"
"The city's burning!" Meg couldn't believe how stupid Janat could be. "We're not going to get a coach!"
Janat waved at the chaos in the street. "Well, we're not going to make it to the artisan quarter walking."
"We have to get out of Archwood." Meg's thoughts plunged ahead. It couldn't be more obvious.
"Leave the city? Have you gone mad?" Janat whispered. "We've no clothes, no servants, no food —"
A horse screamed.
"All right!" Nanna scuttled to the opening of the lane. "We'll try to get out of the city."
"Where's Mama?" Rennika wailed.
"How do we get out?" Janat cried. "The streets are on fire. We have no guards, no coach. And if the main gates are breached —"
"The shrine," Meg said. "The back wall. There's a gate."
* * *
This wasn't right. Rennika had never been in this part of the city before, but they were going farther and farther away from Mama, going through winding narrow streets that all looked the same in the dark. But no one, not even Nanna, was listening to her.
They jogged on, halting at corners to watch before darting across open spaces. Windows showed uncertain light or faces peering into the street. Bands of people clattered in chaotic groups, some heading down toward the main gates, others uphill or across the city. They passed three buildings with flames licking the windows and the air tasted of smoke and ash. Scattered soldiers fought, or ran one direction or another, intent on some mission. Twice Meg cast weak spells of confusion — without ingredients — on groups of soldiers who looked as though they might try to stop them.
They halted at the end of an alley, below a wall twice as tall as a man. Here, the sounds of fighting in the city echoed distantly. But there was a gate.
"Where are King Ean's guards?" Janat whispered.
"Maybe they went to fight below," Meg suggested. "Maybe Mama prayed for our safe passage."
"Hush," Nanna said. "Talk later." Nanna was moving, tugging Rennika across the open space to the gate.
Rennika looked behind. She saw no movement on the dark cobbles, heard no crunch of footsteps above the wind and distant shouts.
They crowded under the arch of the thick wall, out of sight of the street.
Nanna rattled the iron bars. "Locked. Meghra. Can you open it?"
Her sister touched the iron, felt the clasp. "It's another of Mama's wards. I can, but this one's more complex. It'll take time. I don't have any talisman or charm, and the One Star hasn't risen yet."
"Janatelle? Can you?" Nanna peered from the guard post down the hill toward the city.
"I can!" Rennika was good at wards.
Janat looked afraid, like the lying kind of afraid. "Mama hasn't shown me magiel magic yet."
"Let me! I'll do it!" Why did no one ever listen to her?
"Hush, Rennikala," Janat said. "If Mama hasn't shown me magiel magic yet, she hasn't shown you."
Meg followed Nanna's gaze, and Rennika looked where they stared. Soldiers trotted up the road.
Meg turned to Rennika. "Rennikala. Can you open the gate?"
"Yes! I told you, yes!"
"By Kanden, let her try," Nanna cried. "They're coming."
Rennika felt the shape of the lock. It was like lots of Mama's wards, but three of them put together. She willed the metal bar in the middle to remain back in time in its former position and the five tumblers to remember their places when the lock was open.
The lock clicked and the gate swung wide.
"Go!" Nanna pushed them through the opening and closed the gate as the jogging footsteps scattered to a halt on the road just within the wall.
* * *
Exhaustion from the running, the vigilance, and the magic crept up Meg's legs and back and arms as she trudged behind Nanna.
Almost as soon as they'd left the city, following the path to the shrine, they'd heard shouts and the jangle of mailed foot soldiers. The noise came from beyond a rib of rock that blocked their view of a broad ridge connecting the main mountain range to the rounded cliffs where Archwood was built. They'd scrambled up a crack in the rock and huddled, rigid with silence, deep into the night. Below, men moved back and forth along the path, carrying bundles from the wide ridge to the rocky meadows above Archwood.
Mama had seen the future. She'd known something was coming. But what?
There were still too many questions. How could an army have scaled the unscalable ravines to these high meadows? Into the Gods' reserve. Archwood was built on a cliffy outlier of the Orumon Mountains, and the only approach was by the King's Road and the main gate. Invaders were here, behind the city. This made no sense to Meg.
When the movement and sounds of men finally stopped, they crept from their precarious perch and fled up the bands of rock and scree into the wilds.
The sky deepened to starry ink as they plodded up gleaming silver and black rock, finally to crawl beneath the sharp branches of a windt-wisted larch to sleep. And after a shivering night filled with nightmares, cold, and wind, Meg woke to the lessening darkness of dawn. Below her, the city crouched in the gray light. Soldiers glinting in King Artem's colors of gold and green surrounded the walls. Within the parapets, red-clad soldiers scuttled like toys on a game board. King Ean's men. All gates, now, were impenetrable.
Rennika clung silently to Meg's knee as Meg and Janat and Nanna tried to come up with explanations. It was hard to understand what had happened — what they had done by escaping. What was to come next. King Artem must have planned a surprise attack. A small cohort, giving King Ean no time to prepare. Only a few candlemarks of panic and chaos, and Mama's foresight and preparation, had allowed them to escape.
Rennika asked for Mama, and when Mama didn't come, she asked again.
Nanna said that Mama had made arrangements, that Mama would meet them. But then, Nanna promised a lot of things.
Excerpted from "Bursts of Fire"
Copyright © 2019 Susan Forest.
Excerpted by permission of Laksa Media Groups Inc..
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