"I understand." Since this is the tenth time you have told me, I do not add. I take hold of the neckline of my dress--low enough to show the K the Commandant carved into me--and pull it up yet again. The gown Musa found for me is tight in the bodice and flows wide through the waist, turquoise blue silk overlaid with sea-green, gauzelike netting. The neck and hems sag with gold-threaded flowers, embroidered mirrors, and minuscule emeralds. The net deepens into a dark royal blue at the hem, which just brushes the soft fawn slippers Taure gave me. I've braided my hair into a high bun and scrubbed myself so hard my skin still smarts.
When I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirrored wall of the antechamber, I look away, thinking of Elias, wishing he could see me like this. Wishing he were beside me, dressed in his finest, instead of Musa, and that we were walking into a party or festival.
"Stop fidgeting, aapan." Musa draws me from my reverie. "You'll wrinkle the dress." He wears a crisp white shirt beneath a long, fitted blue jacket with gold buttons. His hair, usually pulled back, falls past his shoulders in thick, dark waves, and he has a hood pulled low. Despite it, more than one head turned as we walked with Captain Eleiba through the halls of the palace. A few times, courtiers even tried to approach until Eleiba turned them away.
"I can't do this, Musa." My worry drives me to my feet, and I pace the antechamber. "You said we'd have one chance to convince the king to help us. That the future of our people depends on this. I'm not my mother. I'm not the right person--"
Boots clank beyond the door, and the entrance to the audience chamber opens. Captain Eleiba awaits.
"Good luck." Musa steps back. I realize that he doesn't mean to come with me.
"You get over here, Musa!"
"Laia of Serra," Eleiba announces in a booming voice, "daughter of Mirra and Jahan of Serra." She gives Musa a cold look. "And Musa of Adisa, prince consort of Her Royal Highness Nikla of Adisa."
Only after my mouth has been hanging open a few seconds do I realize how foolish I must look. Musa shakes his head.
"I'm not welcome here, Eleiba--"
"Then you shouldn't have come," the captain says. "The king awaits."
Musa remains a few paces behind me, so I cannot even glare at him properly. I enter the audience chamber, immediately awestruck by the soaring, jewel-encrusted dome above me, the mother of pearl and ebony inlaid floor, the rose quartz columns that glow with inner light. I feel, suddenly, like a peasant.
An elderly man who I assume is King Irmand waits at the north end of the room, a familiar, much younger woman at his side. Princess Nikla. The thrones they sit upon are fashioned from enormous, weathered chunks of driftwood, ornately carved with fish, dolphins, whales, and crabs.
The room is empty of anyone but the royals and their guards. Eleiba goes to stand behind the king, her anxiety evident in the tap of her finger against her thigh.
The king has the shrunken look of a once robust man who has aged suddenly. Nikla appears powerful beside her frail father, though nothing like the simply garbed woman I saw in the prison cell. Her heavily embroidered gown is similar to mine, and her dark hair is arranged in an elaborate turquoise headdress that looks, remarkably, like a wave breaking on a shore.
At the wrath in her face, my steps falter, and I search out any exits in the throne room. I wish I'd brought a weapon with me.
But the princess merely glowers. She is not, I am relieved to see, surrounded by ghuls, though a few lurk in the shadows of the throne room.
"Ah, my wayward son-in-law returns." The old man's deep voice belies his frail appearance. "I've missed your wit, boy."
"And I yours, Your Majesty." Musa's voice is sincere. He pointedly doesn't look at Eleiba.
"Laia of Serra." The crown princess ignores her husband--husband! "Welcome to Adisa. Long have we wished to meet you."
Long have you wished to kill me, you mean. Hag. My irritation must show on my face, because Musa gives me a warning glance before dropping into a deep bow. Reluctantly, I emulate him. The lines around Nikla's mouth tighten.
Oh skies. How can I speak to a king? I'm no one. How can I convince him of anything?
The king gestures for us to rise. "I knew your parents, Laia of Serra," he says. "You have your father's beauty. Handsome as a jinn, that one. No fire in him though. Not like the Lioness." Irmand looks at me with interest. "Well, daughter of Mirra, you have a request? In honor of your late mother, who was a friend and ally for long years, I will hear it."
Princes Nikla barely suppresses a grimace at the words friend and ally, and her dark eyes glint. My ire rises as I think of the things she said about my mother. As I remember what children in the city were saying about the Lioness. Nikla's stare bores into me, a challenge writ there. Behind her, something dark and furtive flits behind one of the rose quartz pillars--a ghul.
A reminder of the darkness we face, one that makes me square my shoulders and meet the king's gaze. I am not no one. I am Laia of Serra, and in this moment, I am the only voice my people have.
"The Scholars suffer needlessly, Your Majesty," I say. "And you can stop it."
I tell him of the fire in the refugee camp. Of all that the Scholars have lost. I tell him of the Empire's war on my people, the Commandant's genocide, the horrors of Kauf. And then, though Musa warned me not to, I speak of the Nightbringer. I am a Kehanni in this moment. And I must make them believe.
I do not dare to look at Musa until I finish the tale. His fists are clenched, knuckles white, gaze fixed on Nikla. As I told the story, my attention was on the king. I did not notice the ghuls emerging from the shadows and congregating around the princess. I did not notice them latching themselves on to her like leeches.
Musa looks as if he is watching the slow torture of someone he loves--which, I finally realize, he is.
"Help the Scholars, Your Grace," I say. "They suffer when they do not have to. And prepare your armies. Whether the Nightbringer comes or not," I say to the king, "you must--"
"I must?" The old man raises his eyebrows. "I must?"
"Yes," I snap. "If you want your people to survive, you must prepare for war."
Nikla steps toward me, hand on her weapon, before controlling herself. "Do not listen to her, Father. She is nothing. Just a little girl selling stories."
"Don't you belittle me." I step forward, and everything fades--Eleiba's hand on her weapon, the guards tensing, a murmered plea from Musa to calm down. "I am the daughter of the Lioness. I destroyed Blackcliff. I saved the life of Elias Veturius. I survived Commandant Keris Veturia. I survived the betrayals of the Resistance and the Nightbringer. I crossed the Empire and broke into Kauf Prison. I rescued my brother and hundreds of other Scholars. I am not nothing." I turn to the king now. "If you do not prepare for war, Your Grace, and the Nightbringer unleashes his jinn, we will all fall."
"And how do we do that, Laia of Serra, without Serric steel?" Princess Nikla says. "We know your brother still lives. Musa no doubt has him hidden away, hammering at weapons for your Resistance."
"Darin of Serra is willing to make weaponry for the Mariners," Musa cuts in smoothly, and I wonder when he talked to Darin about it. "And to teach Mariner smiths the trade. If an equal amount of weaponry is given to the Scholars and an equal number of Scholar smiths are taught. And if the Scholars who have lost their homes are given temporary quarters in the city, and employment."
"Lies," Nikla hisses. "Father, they seek to mislead you. They want only to arm their Resistance."
As much as I want to talk back, I make myself ignore Nikla. It's the
king whom I must convince. "Your Majesty," I say, "it's a good offer. You won't get a better one. The Martials certainly aren't going to help you, and how else will you get Serric steel?"
The king observes me carefully now, and the sparkle of amusement in his eyes is gone. "You are bold, Laia of Serra, to tell a king what to do."
"Not bold," I say. "Just desperate and sick of seeing my people suffer."
"I hear truth in your words, girl. And yet . . ." The king looks to his daughter. Whereas without the ghuls, she looked regal, even beautiful, now she looks angry and merciless, her lips leached of color, her pupils overly bright.
The old man shakes his head. "Perhaps what you say is true," the king says. "But if we arm ourselves with Serric steel, prepare our fleets, ready our defenses, the Martials could declare war by claiming we are planning an attack."
"The Martials are in a constant state of readiness," I say. "They can't attack you just because you do the same."
I hear his age in his sigh. "Oh, child," he says. "Do you have any idea of the dance the Mariners have been forced into these past five hundred years, with the Empire snapping at our borders? Do you know how difficult that dance has grown with Scholars pouring into our country? I am old. Soon, I will die. What do I leave my daughter? Tens of thousands of refugees. The Great Library destroyed. A people divided--half wishing to help the Scholars, the other half tired from five hundred years of doing so. And I am to muster my armies? On the word of a girl who has apparently been helping to make illegal weaponry?"
"At least help the Scholars from the refugee camp," I say. "They--"
"We will replace their tents. In time. That is all we can do."
"Father," Nikla says. "I request to take this girl--and her brother, who is no doubt lurking in the city--into custody."
"No," King Irmand says, and though his words are laden with the authority of his office, I notice with a chill that his hands, spotted and shaking with palsy, give away his immense age. Soon enough, his daughter will be queen.
"If we keep them here, daughter, we give the Martials cause to question our commitment to peace. They are fugitives in the Empire, are they not?"
"Sir," I say. "Please listen. You were friends with my mother--you trusted her. Please, in her place, trust me now."