Author’s Note: I wrote a version of this scene, hated the ending, and then reconsidered it. I did not like the way they’d talked about the queen as though she was not there when she was, so I moved that conversation to a point before they found her. That seemed better to me, but I am still a bit iffy about the ending.
“He let her go, but she is not here in her room,” Anokii said, almost disappointed to find the bed empty as well as the rest of the rooms. The queen was not hiding—she would perhaps have been tempted after what the king had done—not in this place, at least, and she had no other available refuge.
No, wait, there was one. Anokii had almost forgotten about it.
Gekin nodded, pushing back his hood as he looked around the chamber. He should not risk the sunlight, but the queen’s curtains were drawn, as she preferred to keep them. “I came from the catacombs. She was not there. She would have been able to make it there, not if what you say is true.”
“He did not loosen the bands before he told her to go. She would have struggled to make it this far,” Agache said. He moved toward the other door. “Come. We must find the path that she used—perhaps she became disoriented and took the wrong one, though I would not have taken the same one as her. I needed to be less… overt.”
Gekin pulled his hood back over his head. “Grab her cloak. We will need it.”
Anokii did, frowning as she picked it up and folded it over her arm. “Even if we are able to dress the queen in one of our cloaks, our party will be stopped and questioned by the guards. We cannot explain her condition or the fact that Gekin will have to carry her.”
“I could carry her—”
“You know you cannot. Do not suggest it again. She may be a small woman, but your arm will not permit you to be so foolish.” Anokii stepped through the door as Gekin opened it for her. She could not help worrying. This could expose everything, including Agache, but they could not allow the queen to die even if she were not their ally. “I do not like this. You know we are not allowed to treat our wounded or our ill, not within the castle. Those old lies about us, about the Nebkasha being full of disease, a contagion waiting to kill the entire population… We will be thrown out of the castle grounds and left in the twin suns to die.”
“You do not have to come with us. With me, even,” Agache told her. “I will do this alone. It is my responsibility—I let her take my place and she suffers for it.”
“You would drop her before you took two steps. I am going.”
“I will also go. Perhaps I can do something for her before we move her.”
“She will have need of your skills once we get that thing off of her,” Agache said. “Until then, there is little that can be done. What she needs is to be able to breathe, and none of us can give her that. We must take her to someone who can.”
Anokii did not think her cousin understood the situation. He needed to believe they could save the queen or else the guilt would consume him, but he could not afford to deceive himself now. “If the necklace is destroyed, the king will hurt her again, and it will be. Only the king has the key to that thing, and he will not give it to anyone. He would rather have her his prisoner, locked up in that so that he could torture her at any time—if he does not kill her first. If you wish to prevent that, then… perhaps we should take her to the border.”
Agache’s head jerked back toward Anokii. “You told me you asked and she refused to go. Now you would send her without her consent?”
“She could die. We might not get her to the jeweler in time.”
“And we would have no chance of getting her to the border. That is much further, and if you are worried about her health, you would not suggest such a thing. Do you, then, believe she must be saved not only from the necklace but from herself?”
“Her decisions seem only to do her harm.”
“Nevertheless, they are hers to make, not ours. You can no more choose her path than you can mine or Gekin’s. Not that you would have to choose his—he would join you anywhere.”
“Of course I would,” Gekin said, “but that does not mean that she is wrong about the queen. The woman would seem to have more of an inclination to place herself in the way of harm than you, and that is not something I would have believed possible.”
Agache laughed. “I am not the only one with those inclinations. You and Anokii have risked your lives in foolish ways as well. Jis is no worse than any of the rest of us. Well, considering how she was raised, this is nothing.”
Anokii would have questioned him, wanting to know what he knew about the queen’s childhood and why he called her Jis, but they could not have that discussion now. They should not be talking at all, not here, not where anyone could hear Agache’s voice and reveal his survival.
“There,” Agache said, pointing to a small alcove in the hallway. “Quick, Gekin, lift her up. We do not have much time.”
Gekin stepped forward, stopping beside the huddled mess that was the queen had become when she collapsed. He knelt beside her, lifting her into his arms. Anokii would have thought that the queen was dead until the woman started to squirm in Gekin’s hold, shoving at him. “Let… go…”
Agache reached for her hand, wrapping his around it. “Calm yourself, my esibani. Gekin is here to help. We must take you to the jeweler. He should be able to loosen the bands, even if he has to break them, and if he does, he can repair them. It will also give him an opportunity to study the necklace in order to make the copy. We cannot steal it to take it to him—we must steal you instead.”
“Just rest. We will help you. I promise, and when this is over, I will meet with the other resistance leaders and find a way to end this for good.”
She closed her eyes again, holding tight to his hand. Gekin looked at it and frowned. “This may not be possible if she will not let go.”
“I think you should try,” Anokii told him. She lowered her head. “We cannot deny the woman what little comfort she can have at present, and she may become agitated if she is unable to hold onto you.”