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The Black Chamber

Gemma hurried through the tunnels of Under, avoiding piles that might be rubbish and could be worse. She patted the satchel that hung at her side, grateful for the heft of the clean pair of boots within. It would not do to meet the King of Above for the first time with some urchin’s shit on her feet. These tunnels led to the Golden Door. And though Melnora had brought her there countless times, the queen had never taken her through.

          Tonight would be different. Melnora, Queen of Under, lay dying in Guildhouse. Just half an hour ago, her good eye had stared vacantly at Gemma, one side of her face sagging and paralyzed, her tongue stilled. It was the way of things—a master was supposed to pass on her apron to her apprentice, even if the apprentice was to be queen—but Gemma realized, only now, that she might not be ready. Perhaps, she never would be. When the summons had come, little more than an hour after the palsy that had shaken Melnora, Gemma had felt the worst sort of cowardice. She had been nearly overwhelmed by the desire to run—to flee Yigris and leave the Guild without a leader. Temptation had made her limbs quake with adrenaline as she’d dressed in lightweight pants and a silken tunic for the clandestine meeting. But despite her raging desire to disappear, Gemma now found herself in the tunnels, known only to the Guild and to a few of the King of Above’s most trusted advisors. The flush of her exertions painted her cheeks pink as she rushed toward the Golden Door. But her legs were steadfast despite the drumming of anxiety in her heart. The torch in her hand illuminated the rough-hewn walls, and she saw that she was nearing the Black Corridor, where the walls changed in the last stretch before the Golden Door that attached the tunnels Under to the palace Above. The first King of Above had required that the neutral meeting spot be up to the standards he was used to in his palace, but the Queen of Under was used to the dank tunnels and a less luxurious life. They could have met in a whorehouse, a tavern, or on the docks for all the Under cared.

          She stopped and drew a breath to calm herself. She was the head of the Shadow Guild now. This was the first of many meetings that she would take with the King of Above. Though she’d not been born to be the heir of Under, she’d spent half a decade training for this moment. Melnora had put more than a few strong men and women to the knife for questioning Gemma’s ability to lead, and now, Gemma would find out if Melnora’s trust had been well placed. Everything—her entire life—had led her here. If Abram, King of Above, refused her, then Yigris would face a civil war that could prove as dangerous and devastating as the Mage War that had led to the creation of Above and Under in the first place.

          She drew herself to her full height, taller than many men, and wiped her sweat-dampened palms on her breeches before smoothing her tunic and patting at her short, spiky hair. She inspected her boots, which were blessedly clean, then took off her pack and placed it at her feet. It bore the mark of the Queen of Under. She smiled down at the black crest embossed into the red leather, a stylized seabird with a rat in its beak. In the dark of Yigris, it was good to be queen.

          The Black Corridor was different from the rest of the tunnels she had left behind. Here, the shining stone was cleanly hewn and polished, a work of art that only emphasized the hodgepodge of debris and rubble she’d just passed through in the abandoned gold mines beneath the city. Lanterns, kept alight by the King of Above’s mage women, illuminated the hallway. A hundred paces beyond, she could see the glimmer of the Golden Door. Its knocker was made of onyx and ruby, and its knob was a diamond the size of her palm. The thief in her saw both sides of the tempting treasure—the gnawing desire for such glorious wealth, and the obvious trap.

          She sidled toward the door and mentally retraced the steps that Melnora had drilled into her. Dozens and dozens of times, her queen had shown her the intricate workings that separated Under from Above. At least ten times Gemma had disarmed the devices, but the door was ever changing. This was the final test. The gateway to her new life.

           As she neared the door, her senses—so keenly honed to this very work—reached out, observing it in every way she could. She smelled the dank of Under behind her, but it was mostly masked by the scented oily haze of the lanterns, which seemed to drift unnaturally upward.

          Placing her hands on the barren space to the left of the knob and the right of the hinges, she felt the tingle of magery. The door should have been cool to the touch, but instead it hummed with warmth.

She could feel the vibrations of the mages’ tests. One ripple. Two. Three. She smiled as if she’d been given a gift. Once, when she’d accompanied Melnora, there had been eleven traps set.

          She scanned the glimmering door, searching out the nastiness that lay in wait for her if she were to be too hasty. Two wide-set hinges showed that the door opened toward her. Glancing downward, she ran her gaze along the floor.

          “Ahhhh,” she clicked her tongue. A slender line of light ran from one side of the wall to the other just six inches behind her feet. If she were to step back to allow the door to open, she’d interrupt the beam, and Aegos only knew what horrors would await her. Minding each step, she moved to the wall and bent low. A tiny, perfectly square niche held a brilliantly glowing gem. A mage mark scrawled upon it beamed brightly across to the other side of the corridor. She couldn’t read the mark—it was written in the secret language of the Vagan mage women—but she recognized it by its swirls and flourishes.

          Opposite, she found a tiny mirror that bounced the reflection back. She eyed it warily, knowing that her only option was to disarm it from this end. To touch magic without permission could mean death—or worse. She inhaled, gathering the cool, damp air into her lungs. Then she squatted and slid a finger into the groove that began just below the mirror. She clasped the fragile piece of glass between her pointer finger and thumb, then worked it free of its grooves, holding it in line with the gem. Taking painstaking low-to-the-ground steps, she moved the mirror toward the gem, shortening, but intensifying the beam as she went. A rivulet of sweat ran down her back, and she silently cursed the silk of her tunic, which would be ruined now. Step after slow, muscle-grinding step, she moved the mirror closer to the gem until the beam was glowing with such intensity that she had to close her eyes.

          The door was designed so that, in theory, only the Queen of Under, leader of thieves and assassins, would be deft enough to disarm its traps. Gemma slid the mirror into its niche without looking. In that moment, she was calm. Melnora believed that she was capable of this. She would survive to meet the king. She felt the mirror click into place, opened her eyes and was amazed at the blank, featureless wall before her. She drew a trembling breath then stood up, a wide grin spreading across her face.

          “That’s one.”

          She turned back to the door and studied it. The butterflies that had filled her belly just moments before had settled, and her muscles grew taut with anticipation. She was made for work like this. Her gaze drifted along the door’s surface, searching for the next of the mage women’s machinations. Each channel and crevice held the potential for death, each piece of filigreed decoration could be hiding agony. She searched the midsection, so close to where she had recently placed her hands, then moved on, eying the knob warily. She could see herself reflected in its multitude of facets. Her red-gold hair stood out wildly, above eyes that seemed odd and alien in the diamond’s angles. Seeing nothing, she moved on to the next, more painstaking part of detection. She placed two fingers—infinitesimally gentle— against the knob and began to feel her way along it. There had to be a mechanism, and so long as her movements remained slow and light, she could detect it with her sense of touch without setting it off.

          Slowing her breathing to allow herself to hear even the faintest of clicks, she slid her fingers along the top of the doorknob, then along the iron shaft that connected it to the plate that buttressed the gleaming door. She felt for the slightest rise or depression, searching for any anomaly. Just as her fingertips brushed the burnished gold of the doorplate, she heard a soft click, and a tingle went through her. Before she even had time to yank her fingers back, another click, louder and closer, sounded. Her skin broke out in gooseflesh as she fell backward, her heart catching in her throat.

          “Holy Aegos,” she groaned as her ass hit the stone floor. She waited, expecting a poisoned dart or the fiery throes of a vicious death mark, but neither came. Instead, the door clicked once more and then swung open.

          Standing in the doorway was a tall, dark-skinned young man with long curly hair and an expression of utter surprise on his face. Prince Tollan, royal heir, looked down at her. Behind him loomed the stooped figure of a woman. Long white hair hung in tangles hiding most of her face, which was devoid of emotion. “Where’s Melnora?”

          The rising note of panic in Prince Tollan’s voice made Gemma think, just briefly, that perhaps he was as unsure of his footing as she was. She stood and straightened her tunic, then took one step toward him and knelt on the floor. She forced herself not to think of the mirror-and-gem trap that she had just disarmed, right where she now knelt.

          “I . . . I am sorry, Your Highness,” she stammered, averting her gaze, as she pretended to grapple with the proper way to greet the royal heir. “My queen has taken ill. She was summoned to your father. I am Gemma Antos. I am to be Queen of Under when she is gone.”

          The prince’s face fell, his gray eyes growing dark. “I am sorry to be the one to tell you, this, then,” he said as he reached down, grabbing her arm and pulling her into the room after him, “but Melnora was not summoned by my father.” The Golden Door slammed behind her, and all the air rushed out of Gemma’s lungs as she gaped at his hand holding her arm. This was not the way this meeting was supposed to go at all.

          “I summoned Melnora,” the prince said gruffly. “King Abram is dead.” He swallowed, looking as stunned by the words as she was.

          Gemma met his gaze, disbelief and distaste mingling on her tongue like sour milk.

He must have realized that he still held a stern grip on her upper arm. “Oh, I . . .” He released her, staring down at his own hand as if it disturbed him. “Sorry.”

          The elderly woman shuffled her feet behind him, and he spun. “Oh, yes. Hannai, go back to your room.”

          The woman, who Gemma realized must be one of the king’s mage women, stared up at the prince with eerie, watery eyes. Her eyebrow fluttered as if she were about to voice some displeasure, but then she turned and walked slowly away. The door clicked shut behind her, and the prince turned back to Gemma. His hands were trembling, and he clasped them in front of him to hide it.

          Goddess, he’s a mess. “I am sorry to hear of your loss, Your . . . Your Grace,” she said, purposefully stumbling over the proper way to address him. Her bottom lip trembled slightly. “Please forgive me, Your Grace. I am . . . distraught over Melnora’s illness, and I was unprepared for—”

          “It’s all right,” he said, “I’m a bit of a—”

          The door that led deeper into the palace burst open. The younger prince, Iven, who Gemma recalled as little more than a boy at the last royal parade, stormed into the room brandishing a bloody sword. He was followed by a pale-faced young woman and two elderly mage women.

          “Stop!” Iven bellowed at the top of his lungs. “You, Tollan Daghan, are under arrest for regicide and patricide.” There was a dangerous glint in his eyes.

          Prince Tollan stared at his brother, eyes wide and mouth open and closing like a fish on the beach. When he spoke, his voice quavered. “No! Father collapsed, and I was called to his rooms. He died in his bed.”

          “Yes, at the point of your blade!” Iven waved the sword.

          “I didn’t!” Tears sprung to the elder prince’s eyes.

          Gemma had seen enough to know that this family argument was one she had no interest in witnessing. She glanced at the mage women, whose eyes stared blankly out of emotionless faces. A chill ran down her spine. The young woman beside Prince Iven smiled smugly. Mind racing ahead, Gemma made a decision. The royal family could tear itself apart later—Melnora was lying on her deathbed. She turned to go, then turned back, sighing over her own sentimentality. Tollan Daghan didn’t look like he’d fare well in this fight.

          “Come on, Your Highness,” she grabbed his arm. “Time to go. This is one ball you were not invited to.” She pulled him backward, slamming the Golden Door shut behind them. Several mage marks flared upon its surface and the walls of the Black Corridor, resetting themselves.

          She grinned at him. “We’ve got a few minutes’ head start.” Scooping up her satchel, she pulled him along, past the elegant Black Corridor and into the chilly debris-strewn tunnel. They ran, making turn after turn as she counted in her head and ignored his panting. The darkness was complete, but Gemma knew her way. Tollan tripped repeatedly, but she caught him. His breath was coming in gasps when she finally pulled to a halt.

“So, about that whole assassination thing . . .” she said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her words.

          “I didn’t do it. I swear,” he said while wheezing.

          “That’s what they all say,” she said, then realized that he might not be able to tell that she was joking. “What did happen to the king?”

          Tollan coughed and she could hear tears in his voice as he said, “He was in meetings for most of the morning. After luncheon, he said he had a headache and went to his chambers. He . . . he had some kind of a fit that left him dead on one side of his body.” She could feel the movement of the air around him as he slid to the floor. His words came out in choked sobs. “He . . . he fell asleep and . . . ”

          Gemma’s heart began to pound as she realized how similar his story was to what had happened to Melnora. “Did he fall into a slumber and could not be awakened?” she continued.

          “He did,” Tollan croaked. “And then . . . he died.”

          Fear and rage raced through her veins. “How long?” she snapped. “How long did the slumber last?”

          Tollan’s voice was a small moth of a thing. “Hours,” he whispered. “Only a few hours.”

          “Shit. Prickling, shitting Void,” Gemma snarled. Pieces of a puzzle were fitting themselves together neatly in her mind, forming a picture that terrified her.

          “What? Are you all right?”

          “Of course I’m not all right! Are you? Your father is dead, and for all I know, Melnora’s gone now, too. The physician said she wouldn’t last the night. And I just helped you escape royal justice. Oh, balls.” She slapped her palms against the tunnel walls.

          “I didn’t do it.” He sounded pitiful and pathetic.

          “We’ve been over that. You’re not a half-wit, are you? I need to know if you’re up for the challenge, here.”

          “No, I . . .What challenge?”

          “Obviously, you’re telling the truth. The mage women marked you as king, right?”

          “Yes.” He gasped as her fingers slid beneath his tunic, touching the skin of his back.

She could feel the rough skin around the mark, the flesh branded with magic. “Sorry, big guy. I just had to be sure.”

          “It’s . . . it’s fine. What am I going to do?”

          “Who can you trust back at the palace?”

          All the air in Tollan’s lungs poured out in a rush. “There’s no one. There’s only you.”

          Gemma stopped walking. She could hear the clop of horses’ hooves and people talking nearby. She ignored the fear that was trying to seep its way into her chest. “Hey,” she said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “You’re doing just fine, then.”

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