Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two

Notes: We meet the enemy! Kind of.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two


Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two

They entered the front of the palace with no problems. That in and of itself was suspicious—there had just been a bloody massacre outside, it should have prompted more of a response from the palace staff, at least. But no one came to them.
“We need to get back to their living quarters,” Rone said. “It’s the most defensible place in the house. That’s where Amiru is likely to be, with Tiyana and the kids.”
The kids. Of course, his own children wouldn’t be infected with the phage but that didn’t mean they weren’t still pawns in this. If Christala could make Amiru threaten them, hurt them—Rone wouldn’t let that happen. He might give in, to keep the children from getting hurt. What would Christala ask for? And would Cas be able to keep her from getting it?
And speaking of the children, what were they going to do with Lilah and Shar? “What about—” Cas began, but he was interrupted a second later by a muffled pssst. He turned to see a young woman in a sturdy brown uniform, with tight black curls and dark skin, motioning to them from the hall on the right-hand side.
“Riina?” Rone said, sounding surprised.
“Riina!” Lilah made as though to run for her, but Cas held her back. Riina. The nanny. The one that Tiyana said was sick.
“It’s okay,” Riina encouraged, correctly—or at least, partially correctly—interpreting Cas’s hesitation. “I put the boys in the panic room before I came back to look for Tiyana. It’s gone crazy here—the king ordered everyone to leave, almost everyone! He kicked out all the staff and guards and set the doors to keep them out.”
“How did you get in?” Rone asked.
Riina shook her head. “I never left. I’ve been in the infirmary for the past few days, but I was the only one there apart from the doctor, and he didn’t come to work today. I hid while two of the king’s bodyguards checked the infirmary an hour ago—something just didn’t feel right. Something’s happened to King Amiru! He’s not acting like himself!” She sounded genuinely distressed. “When I went to the nursery and found the boys alone, I knew something was seriously wrong. I put them in the panic room and came back to try and get their mom.” She held out her hand again. “Lilah and Shar can join them, Gale will let them in. I’ll take them.” She glanced hesitantly between the two of them. “Or—or you can bring them yourselves, that’s fine. I just—they need to be safe. Please, I’m telling the truth!”
She was telling a partial truth, at least. Cas grabbed Rone’s wrist and held him back as he began to move. “How long were you sick for?” Cas asked.
“Um, a few days…why?”
“And you’ve been here the whole time?”
“So if the prince here decides to check the log in the infirmary, he’ll see that you haven’t left the building for at least the past forty-eight hours.”
“Yes, but.” She looked in confusion at Rone. “Why would you need to do that?”
Now he heard it—the movement just beyond her, the faint sound of shifting weight. Their guns were useless now, but that didn’t mean the guards themselves were.
“Please, come this way,” she begged, looking almost behind herself in a panic. “Hurry! Before we’re caught! I’ll, I’ll leave the kids alone, you can see them go into the panic room with Gale and the baby, just—” A split-second later a dagger was sailing through the air, heading straight for Shar’s forehead. Cas snatched it up and resisted the impulse to throw it right back at her. He might need it, after all.
Two more projectiles followed, and he blocked one while Rone blocked the other. A moment later Riina—Christala, he corrected in his head, because this was her work and probably her body—was gone, but two of her thralls had charged into the front hall, each one wielding a long, deadly blade. Rone stepped out in front and Cas let him, putting the children behind him and readying his newly acquired dagger.
He didn’t need to bother, in the end. Rone leaped toward the closest guard before the man could bring the blade to bear, hammering a powerful punch into his throat before immobilizing his arm and taking the sword away. The man fell to the ground, choking on his own crushed throat, as Rone used the sword to parry the other guard’s stroke. She actually showed some finesse with the blade—she knew how to move with it, how to strike and block and search for weaknesses, but it didn’t matter. Rone wasn’t trying to duel, he was trying to kill his enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. He dodged her next strike, cut flicker-fast along her forearm until her tendonless hand dropped the weapon, then swung his own sword hard at her arm, cutting it off just above the elbow. The next strike took her head.
The corpse fell to the floor, blood forming a macabre pool around the remains. The other guard was unconscious now, probably nearly dead himself. There was no need to comfort this time around. “We have to find her,” Cas said.
“She won’t be far from my brother, now that the first part of her plan has failed.” Rone sounded grim. “You should take the children to another part of the palace, somewhere on the other side of the building.”
“I don’t know my way around here!” Cas protested. “And you can’t take her on by yourself. You don’t know everything she’s capable of!” Cas felt the kids move a little way back, possibly disturbed by the argument. He wanted to turn around and assure them that it was all right, but the truth was, he couldn’t say that.
“I can’t allow my children to walk into harm’s way!”
“And I can’t allow my husband to run headlong into that harm without any support!” Cas snapped. “You think you’ve seen the worst of what she can do, but you haven’t, not by a long shot, and I won’t let you—” A strange, soft hiss from behind Cas made him turn, dagger raised, ready to kill to protect the children.
They weren’t there, though. No one was there. “Lilah?” He almost dropped the blade as he spun around. “Shar?
“We’re fine.” Lilah stuck her head out of a frosted vitrine beside the wall. “We’re gonna be in the tunnels, okay? So you two can stay together.”
“Tunnels?” Rone sounded as surprised as Cas felt. “What tunnels?”
“The ones Aunt Tiy put in last year.” She wrinkled her nose. “They’re not as good as the ones at home, but there are a bunch of them. Gale showed me how to get in.”
Cas turned toward Rone. “What is it with you people and tunnels?”
“They make for useful escape hatches, obviously. And the ground here is igneous rock, so a lot of the tunnels are built into the foundation.” He glanced inside the vitrine, then nodded. “Stay close. No wandering into places you haven’t been before. If you don’t hear from Cas or I within the next hour, I want you to get out of here and head for the base. You understand me?”
“Yes, Daddy.” Shar nodded as well.
“Good.” He kissed both of them on the forehead, then stepped aside and motioned Cas forward. “Make your goodbyes quick,” he said.
A little surprised, but grateful for the chance, Cas bent down and touched each child on the cheek, a fast, gentle caress. “If we don’t say ‘noodles’ when we’re calling for you, then it’s not us, even if it sounds like us,” he murmured. “Okay? Don’t trust us otherwise.”
“Okay,” Lilah said with perfect seriousness.
“Good.” Cas moved away and she closed the vitrine.
Noodles? Rone mouthed as they listened to the children scuttle down into the floor.
“It’s an inside joke,” Cas said. Rone smiled, and for a second it almost felt normal between them. Then the blood reached Cas’s shoe, and he swallowed and stepped back.
“All right,” he said firmly. “Let’s go find the king.”

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