Caleb Genet, the newest member of the Queen’s court, glanced nervously around the royal banquet hall as silent servers swept between the kitchens and the table, carrying enough food to feed the entire queendom for a month and setting it out for the court’s perusal. The Queen hadn’t said a word, yet, and so neither had a single member of the court. Instead, they sat in silence, waiting for orders. Caleb fidgeted in his seat, his gaze landing on the royal spymaster, Amaris Chapelle, who was staring at him, confusion and suspicion obvious in their dark gaze. The spymaster made it their business to know every member of the court before they arrived, and the fact that they had no information about the dark young man across from them– not even his name– made them more than a little concerned. There was no love lost between them and the Queen, in truth, but their own continued safety depended on hers, and so they resolved to learn all they could about the mysterious newcomer.
Lady Nella Auguste, a distant heir of the Queen’s whose continued presence at court was really more a matter of necessity on the Queen’s part than any genuine affection between the two of them, noticed Amaris’s staring, and nudged them gently with her elbow, casting a sympathetic glance toward the subject of their piercing gaze. Amaris didn’t react to the touch, just continuing to drum their fingers on the table, until the head server set a plate in front of the Caleb, making him jump. The mountain of food in front of him, enough to feed half of his village back home, more than he’d ever seen in one place before, distracted him from Amaris’s staring, and at the sight of his awe, Amaris’s eyes narrowed, their suspicions growing.
The servers retreated from the table, settling in the eaves of the room, ready to jump out and avert problems before they arose. There was another moment of silence, heavy and expectant, and then the Queen, at the head of the table, cleared her throat, raised her bejewelled hands, and ordered the court to eat.
Immediately, the bubble of silence burst with an explosion of sound, utensils clattering and people talking and chewing and laughing, and still, Amaris stared, their eyes narrowed at the newcomer, even as they began to eat their own meal– their suspicions weren’t worth the consequences that came from disobeying even slight orders in the Queen’s direct sight.
“Leave the poor kid alone,” Nella said, nudging them harder and tucking her box braids behind her shoulder to eat. “He’s obviously scared half to death.”
“That’s why I’m worried about him,” Amaris muttered. “No one gets to court at his age without an idea of what to expect. Even foreigners aren’t often this out of place.”
“Oh, come on. How many foreigners have you actually seen here since the Consort met the elements?” Nella asked, rolling her eyes and cutting into a piece of the venison laid out before her.
“Hm. Even still,” Amaris said. “I think I want to talk to him after the banquet.”
“Do you want my help with that?” Nella asked. “I don’t think he’s gonna go anywhere near you if he doesn’t have to, after this. You’re drawing attention to yourself, spymaster.”
“Only his,” said Amaris. “I don’t mind newcomers noticing me, so long as they also know I’ve noticed them.”
“Trust me, he knows,” Nella said.
For his part, Caleb was very gingerly beginning to eat, as well. Neither of the minor nobles on either side of him had bothered to try and engage him in conversation, thank the elements, but that didn’t make the meal itself any easier to stomach. Literally. It was absurdly decadent fare, and he was sure he’d be sick the moment he got back to his rooms that evening.
It’ll be worth it, he promised himself. It’ll all be worth it, in the end.
The banquet ended fairly quickly, as far as these things went, and once it was over, Nella tailed after the newcomer as he followed the rest of the court into the Grand Hall for the beginning of the nighttime ceremony. The newcomer was hiding in the back of the crowd, far from the view of the guards around the Queen, far enough back that if Nella spoke to him she wouldn’t be the only one talking.
“You’re new,” she said, sidling up beside him.
Caleb jumped at the voice over his shoulder, whipping his head around to see the noblewoman who’d nudged the person staring at him during dinner.
“What– um. Wh-wh-who… What?” he stammered.
Nella snorted. “If you’re asking how I knew you were new, it’s painfully obvious, sweets. You’re practically screaming it. My name is Nella Auguste. What’s yours?”
“C-C-Caleb Genet,” Caleb said. “You– uh. You’re related t-t-to th-the Queen, yeah?”
“By blood and not much else,” Nella said. “Are you planning to stay here for more than a day? Because, if so, you need to find a way to look less new. Even your clothes are off.”
“D-do you know someone who ca-can help me look l-less new?” Caleb asked.
Nella tilted her head. “I’d be willing to help. So would Amaris, if you tell them what you’re doing here.”
“Amaris?” Caleb asked.
Another voice sounded over his shoulder, this one lower and smoother than Nella’s. “That would be me.”
Caleb turned around to see the person who’d been staring at him over the banquet. Panic seized him, and he stumbled back.
“I-I-I-I don’t– I don’t want– I don’t mean–”
“Relax,” Amaris said, lifting one hand. “I won’t be any trouble for you if you aren’t any trouble for me.”
“Amaris can be trusted,” Nella said. “And even if you don’t want to tell them anything, they’ll find it out anyways. That’s what spies do. They’ll like you more if you just say it, though.”
“Clearly, you’re terribly skilled in parroting,” said Amaris. “Are you here to be an announcer? You’re in the wrong part of the palace, if so.”
“No,” Caleb said. “No. I– I’m here t-to save the Queen.”
Amaris froze, their eyes widening. “Save the Queen? I was not aware that she was under any immediate threat.”
“She isn’t. Right now. But she will be, i-i-if she doesn’t l-leave the Queendom, and soon,” Caleb said, gaining a little bit more confidence now that Amaris wasn’t staring at them quite so intently.
“How do I not know about this?” Amaris muttered.
“Maybe you’re losing your touch,” Nella teased.
Amaris shot her a glare.
“I-i-it’s a new thing. It’s– we shouldn’t talk here. If you also don’t want the Queen to die, don’t want anyone to die if they d-d-don’t have to, I can tell you, I th-think. But– we’ve gotta go s-s-somewhere else for it. We can’t s-stay here.”
Amaris and Nella glanced at one another. Then they each grabbed one of Caleb’s wrists and tugged him behind a tapestry, into a doorway that Caleb hadn’t known was there. He stumbled after them, down the passageway and into a small chamber that looked like it had once been a servant’s quarters, but was now emptied out and covered in a thick layer of dust.
“Tell us,” Amaris said, the moment the door to the passageway was closed behind them. “Now.”
“Amaris,” Nella chided.
“There’s a-a-a plot,” said Caleb. “Out in the villages. There’s a t-t-tr-travelling group of merchants, they’re c-carrying information between the villages and the s-smaller towns and planning an uprising. They want t-t-to kill the Queen.”
“People have tried to kill the Queen before,” said Nella. “It’s never worked.”
“She has the elements’ protection,” Amaris said, ignoring Nella’s snort at that. Their brow furrowed. They had heard about a group of traveling merchants, spreading all sorts of talk and entrancing the masses with what their contact had insisted were elaborate stage tricks. Now, seeing Caleb’s expression, Amaris kicked themself for not investigating further.
“So do these merchants,” said Caleb. “I-I’ve seen them. They’re scary. Th-they have the most elemental power I’ve ever seen in one place. A-and they’re– I mean, uh…”
“They’re right?” Amaris asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I-I-I-I didn’t say that,” Caleb said quickly.
“It’s okay,” said Nella. “Neither of us are the biggest fans of the Queen. We know what she’s done. Probably more than anyone out in the countryside does.”
“I’m not sure,” said Caleb. “We know a lot. We’ve seen a lot. The famines, th-the wars…”
“I’ve seen more,” said Amaris. “But that’s besides the point. What do you suggest we do about this?”
“I-I had an idea. That would maybe save the Queen’s life, but a-a-also keep her away. Make everything better.”
“That’s a tall order,” said Nella.
“How do you propose we do this?” Amaris asked.
“We c-convince her to leave,” Caleb said. “Th-the merchants– they’re scary, and strong. I’ve tried to talk them out of it, tried to send messages to court to let the Queen know, but… none of i-it worked. But I-I-I can show her what they’re capable of, what they’re planning. Th-there’s a lot of them. And they have a lot of followers. More followers than the Queen has guards. If they did attack the palace, she’d be overwhelmed. But– but if she leaves, she’d survive, and the people would get what they want, they could do what they want, a-a-and– and you’re a spy!” He pointed to Amaris, who blinked slowly. “You could stay here, a-and pretend to be working towards her return, but j-just give her bad information, tell her it’s still not safe over and over again, a-and maybe even help the people some with the information you have!”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions about where my loyalties lie,” Amaris said.
Caleb froze, his eyes going wide.
“Amaris,” Nella said, “don’t scare the kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” Caleb protested.
“You’re so green here, you might as well be. And you’re right about how we both feel about the Queen,” said Nella. “We’ve been looking for a way to get rid of her without putting ourselves in danger for years. That is the one flaw in your plan– I’m fourth in line for the throne, and the Queen’s removal makes me a much bigger target, especially since the Queen’s daughter is six and her brothers are useless little pushovers who couldn’t stand up to a stiff wind. I’m also sure that the rest of the nobles in the palace would probably object to its being stormed by peasants. How do you suggest we solve those problems?”
“Um.” Caleb glanced between Nella and Amaris, wringing his hands in front of himself.
“We can work on it,” said Amaris. “Your plan is incomplete, but it’s not a bad starting place. How long do we have, before these merchants of yours arrive?”
“About a week,” said Caleb.
“A week!” Nella said. “You couldn’t have come here sooner?”
“I-I only just got away from them!” said Caleb. “And it wasn’t easy to sneak into the palace and make myself look like a member of the court! I did my best!”
“Hush,” said Amaris. “We are in a private space, one that most don’t know about, but in a place like this, the walls have ears. Sometimes literally.”
“Oh,” Caleb said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Sorry.”
“Okay,” said Nella. “We have a week to make this plan, and evacuate the Queen. How do we make that happen?”
A day later, the Queen stared down from her throne at Caleb, who was kneeling before her, trembling slightly. One pale eyebrow was raised at him, her palms in their too-heavy, gold-threaded sleeves resting on the arms of her throne and her haughty, heavily-made-up face unblinking and fierce.
“And are you certain that this plan of yours will work? I will not abandon my throne and my country without a truly excellent reason,” she said, her voice ice-cold and haughty.
“I-I promise you, Your Highness, this reason is the most excellent one I’ve ever seen,” Caleb said. “Lord Chapelle can verify my claims, I-I know that they’ve been gathering information on the rebels since th-they discovered them.”
The Queen’s gaze snapped over to Amaris, who was standing at the edge of the throne room, their hands folded behind their back and their face blank.
“Well?” she demanded. “Is it true?”
“It is indeed, Your Highness,” Amaris said, taking a step forwards and bowing slightly. “Lord Genet’s information is perfectly reliable. I do not believe that your forces are strong enough to hold the castle against the invaders. If you wish to survive, you must–”
There was a crash from somewhere else in the palace, followed by a deafening scream. Amaris’s head whipped up, staring towards the source of the noise, and Caleb spun around, all thoughts of propriety forgotten.
That had come from the front gate.
“It’s too late, Your Highness,” Nella said, stepping up onto the dais, ignoring the spears that were immediately pointed her way from the guards lining the wall behind the throne. “There are too many people here. Your guards won’t be able to hold them off. If you don’t run now, if you don’t flee as far as you can, you will die, and there will be nothing any of us can do to stop it.”
“Peasants are no match for my guards,” the Queen said. “And I am blessed by the elements. They cannot touch me.”
“Your Highness, please–” Amaris began.
There was another scream, louder this time, closer, and the sound of metal crashing together, of footsteps pounding, of people shouting and chanting and drawing ever nearer and nearer. The nobles and courtesans began to scream, as well, some fleeing the throne room entirely via the various back-doors within it, others sprinting to the dais as though that would provide some measure of protection. The guards behind the Queen filed neatly around her, two staying up on the dais while the other four made their way over to the throne room’s main doors, their spears levelled and their gazes stony.
Caleb looked at Amaris, a helpless terror in his eyes, and Amaris grabbed his wrist, yanking him out of the centre of the throne room, just as the doors burst open, sending shards of wood flying through the room, shredding tapestries and impaling the guards where they stood.
“We have to run,” Amaris said, as Nella joined them and Caleb in their little huddle. People were flooding into the throne room, screaming and chanting war cries and waving pitchforks and scythes and cast-iron pans, barrelling over the guards as though they weren’t even there, stampeding up to the dias, even as the Queen screamed.
“Sh-she’s got the elements’ gift,” said Caleb. “Right? She can use it to save herself.”
“Oh, please,” Nella said, “no one in the royal family has had the elements’ protection for generations.”
“But then–” Caleb began.
“If you want to survive, we need to leave,” Amaris said, grabbing Caleb’s wrist once more and yanking him towards one of the tapestry-covered passageways.
“B-but–” Caleb said.
There was a scream from behind them, louder and clearer than any before, and all three turned to see a scythe swinging through the air, slicing through the Queen’s neck in one motion. The whole room seemed to freeze, hundreds of people holding their breath, the very air still as a lake on a windless day.
Then the Queen’s pale head tipped to one side, and her golden body fell to the other, both hitting the ground simultaneously with a wet thunk and a deafening cheer.
“It’s too late,” Nella said, pushing Caleb’s back, shoving him into the passageway, where all three began to run. “We have to go.”
“She’s dead,” Caleb breathed. “I didn’t– I-I-I didn’t want– I didn’t want a-anyone to die–”
“You’re a sweet kid,” Nella said. “The world isn’t like you.”
“I’m not a kid. How will you t-two survive, if the Queen is dead?” Caleb asked.
“We will find a way,” Amaris said. “We always have. And if you are willing to stay with us…?”
“I’m the one who put you in danger. I’m not just gonna abandon you,” Caleb said.
“See? Told you,” Nella said. “Sweet kid.”
“I’m not a kid.”
“We will survive,” Amaris said. “Whether the queendom makes it through this or not, I have trouble yet to cause. This will not be the end.”
“As if I’d go out like this,” Nella said. “I’ve still got stuff to do.”
“I-I know somewhere safe,” Caleb said. “If you guys can get us out of the palace, I can get us there.”
“Well, that’s easy enough,” Amaris said. “Shall we?”
Nella and Caleb both nodded, and together, off they ran.