Submitted Date 05/13/2019

Julien has grown fat in the years since we took the throne for him.

Even as he cowers in his study, he shovels ripe cherries in his mouth. The juice spills through his greasy lips. It rolls down his face, his neck, and stains the white collar of his robes red.

He catches me staring.

"What?" The king snaps, wiping his chin with a crisp linen napkin.

"Nothing, your grace."

Julien pushes the bowl of fruit aside and pours another cup full of wine. "You've always told me the truth, Quentin. It's why I made you my Advisor after Solene, the Betrayer. Don't make me regret that now. Now, on this day when our enemies plan to run down the door."

I sigh and uncross my legs. The bells will soon toll the hour and this palace will be thrown into chaos. For treating me as his second in command, I suppose I will gift him this moment of honesty.

"Shouldn't you be preparing for a fight, your grace?" I ask him. "Instead of hiding here and getting drunk?"

Julien scowls but he does put down his wine. "Fifteen years I've worn this crown. And not a single one of our enemies has come close to taking it from me. God has chosen me to wear this crown. You chose me to wear this crown. Wisely so, for our people and our lands have flourished because of it.

"This God has promised me—He grants me the strength to be an enemy to thine enemies. He has made me a sword so that none may pass through this land of plenty. He has given me the words to bring our people out of poverty and the immortality to always be with them.

"I am, in a word," Julien finishes grandly, "unafraid."

Like all his pretty speeches, this one seems to resound around the room, setting my skin to gooseflesh. But, like all his pretty speeches, the feeling soon fades and I'm left empty. Empty as the promises this tyrant king loves to make.

Julien's face crumbles when I don't applaud him as his nobles do.

"You are my only friend left but I beg you be honest," Julien says quietly before meeting my gaze. "You still think me a good king, don't you?"

I bow my neck and do what I do best: lie. "As you said, you are chosen and God-blessed. You are no less than a perfectly good king, your grace."

Julien nods, satisfied.

And the bells begin to ring.

My shoulders are tense by the time the last chime sounds and a commotion stirs beyond the door.

A kingsguard bursts into the study a moment later. "Your grace, a mob led by the Exiled, Marguerite, have trampled down the palace guards. They're entering the palace and aimed for the throne."

"Get the King there first and through the entrance to the tunnels," I order the kingsguard. To Julien, I say, "I'll secure the other entrance."

The halls are thick with nobles, fleeing from the mob. Even I am impressed with how quickly Marguerite gathered them up. But I turn away from their torches and pitchforks toward the royal bath.

The tunnels beneath the palace were built in the days when this kingdom was only one among a handful of bountiful kingdoms. In the days when wars were fought as often as men breathed, a stronghold beneath the citadel was useful. Much more useful than it is now, in this Age of Tyrants.

Steam from the red-tiled pool clouds the air, making it thick and hot. I hurry to the far wall, where a sunburst mural distracts the eye from a hidden door. An octagonal tile is loose; pulled away, it reveals the keyhole.

A plume of dust shoves into my lungs when I heave the door open. The passage is dark and dank. But a single flame wavers uncertainly in the darkness.

Amelie rushes forward. She gives me a wary look. But then I pull her into my arms and kiss her silent.

"I thought you betrayed me," she hisses when she pulls away. "We were ambushed at the tunnel exit."

I check her over for blood. "Are you alright?"

Amelie raises one brow, smirking.

A shuffle comes behind us and I hand over the key. Without a look back, Amelie disappears into the tunnel, her rifle slapping her shoulder as she hurries.

I shut the door and replace the loose tile and backtrack toward the hall.

"She didn't kill you."

I stop, searching for the face to whom the voice belongs. But there is only this thick steam, rising and hissing up around me.

"After what you did to Rueben," the voice says, "I was certain she would kill you. I thought to lend a hand in the deed, but I see now I will have to do this alone."

She emerges then. The woman with the old-fashioned cane and face full of wrinkles. Yet the fact that she walks and does not glide like one of Yanic's spirits tells me this phantasm is not as it seems.

"You recognize this masque?" Solene says in the voice of the Reverend.

My fingers twitch for the sword hanging from my waist; I clench my fist. "You found Julien's Box?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"I did not kill your woman, Solene."

"You have always been a liar, Quentin." Solene stops with only a few inches remaining between us. When they tilt their head catlike to the side, I see the glint of green hidden beneath the masque's brown eyes. "But I don't think you're lying to me now."

Solene pulls off the masque and my heart hammers; I unfurl my first. Their wiry brows furrow and, while Solene is searching for truths in my gaze, I reach for my sword.

"You didn't kill her," says Solene, "did you?"

I frown. "No."

"Then who? Please, Quentin, I need to know. Vengeance for her is all I have left!"

"Yes, I hear you have abandoned God," I say. "But religion was not all that mislead you, Solene. Your own intuitions do it just as well."

Their eyes widen. "Amelie—"

Solene's words cut off when I shove my sword through their throat.

The mage stumbles, dark blood spilling to the white marble floors.

"Why?" Solene chokes out.

I yank my sword free and Solene falls.

I kneel when the shallow rise and fall of Solene's chest ceases. Fumbling through the folds of their coat, I search the pockets. My hand curls around an object, larger than my palm and made of polished wood.

A bit of gold leafing flakes off as I pull the Box free.

The thing within thumps in greeting.

A scream sounds from the throne room. I tear my eyes from the gilded Box and wipe Solene's blood from my blade.

It is time for me to claim my throne.

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