“Welcome to Trader’s Square.”
Dare stopped short, digging the heels of her scuffed, borrowed boots into the dirt. That was the queen’s voice. It was tinny and unnatural, but it was hers.
She looked over the crowd to find the source of the cheerful announcement. There, seated on a throne of limestone, nodding to the passersby, was a life-sized automated replica of the queen coated in delicate copper leaf. A crank key at the base turned slowly as the figure moved through its sequence of operations with clockwork precision. A nod. A wave. An expression of serenity.
It was a masterful likeness. Dare had seen other such automatons before, most as they were being built. The artisans told her that people loved to feel the queen was watching over them wherever they lived, which was why they were sent out to all of the cities in Theorrey. In this way, everyone could be as close to her divine presence as possible. In spirit if not in truth.
This one was the best yet, forged with such attention to detail that Dare had to move closer.
Queen Idony the Ever Young. The artistic engineer had captured the eternally fourteen-year-old monarch perfectly; the mischievous smile, the large, deep-set jeweled eyes, wise and knowing beyond her apparent years. Even the distinctive shining hair was exact—made of fine, individual strands of white gold. It fell to her shoulders, drawing attention to the necklace that always adorned her graceful neck.
The Nymphaea Infinitum.
Dare had been a much younger, newly chosen Chalice the first time she saw the amulet. It had fascinated her ever since. Its strangely shaped gears, made of a metal unlike any she’d seen before, surrounded a lotus whose many petals were crafted from the valuable greenish-blue theorrite. What made it all the more unusual was that it seemed more than an ornament. It appeared to be grafted to the queen’s skin. As much a part of her as her own flesh.
“The symbol of my rule,” Queen Idony had told her with a small, ironic tilt of her lips.
The immense sadness emanating from her when she’d said it had made Dare—naïvely foolish and unaware of protocol—ask her why. Father had warned her not to share the knowledge of her gifts with others, but he couldn’t have meant to include the queen. Surely she, of all people, already knew. She knew everything.
“You dare to presume what your queen is feeling?” Idony’s smile had grown, and real amusement rolled off her in pleased waves. “I think you will be my favorite Senedal, Demeter. And I know we shall be friends. Though I’m not sure such a stodgy name will suit you. What was the commander thinking? I believe I will call you Dare.”
A scratchy, female voice interrupted her musings and brought her back to reality with a jolt. “Pretty version ain’t she, boy? We’ve been needin’ a new one for years. Got her in a few weeks ago though, surprised if this is the first time you’ve seen her.”
Dare couldn’t tear her gaze away from the moving statue as it nodded in regal welcome. She knew she had to acknowledge the woman who had appeared beside her lest she seem odd or out of place, but it was not easy to look away from the dearly familiar queen.
She tried not to flinch when she finally glanced up at the thin, taller woman’s face. One half of it was smiling. The other half, malformed from some terrible misfortune, was pulled into a grimace.
Dare forced herself to speak. “I’ve been ill. A . . . friend was looking after me.”
The scarred hand patting her arm stilled for a moment, and Dare sensed a jarring edge of suspicion from the woman. “Ill, you say? That’s too bad. But you look healthy enough now. Young and strong. Though I’m guessing it must be a tender throat that has you still sounding like a girl at your age. Friend, huh? Don’t have any family to look after you, then? No one who would care that you walk through the square untended?”
Dare tried to deepen her voice. “Yes. My throat. And I’m old enough to be on my own. I need no attending.”
Suddenly, Dare could barely hold back her tears. All the emotions around her must be affecting her control. A member of the Wode did not cry. She’d learned that long ago, when her father had first left her at the palace. She was a warrior, a soldier. Bred to be a companion and guard. Love and family were not for people like her.
Yet she did have a family of sorts in Queen Idony and Cyrus. An Arendal, Cyrus was Dare’s counterpart, the Queen’s Sword. They had arrived at the palace on the same day, replacing generations of their predecessors as the queen’s companion guards. Her Arendal and Senedal. Her Sword and Chalice.
She hadn’t cried when, months ago, she had been informed that Cyrus was missing, presumed dead. She hadn’t cried when she discovered that the queen . . . No. She could hardly admit the truth, even to herself. It was too horrific.
She could not cry now.
Dare tugged the brim of the large woolen hat farther down, to hide her expression. She wasn’t quick enough.
“Oh my,” the young woman, who looked to be around her age, tutted. “Here you’ll be thinking Lucy Thrice is ugly and mean. Put my foot in it, did I? I’m sure you are perfectly capable of attending yourself. Nothing could scare a brave lad like you, eh? But that throat and those watery eyes have given Lucy an idea. Tell you what, I have a special grain tonic that’ll ease your troubles. My own creation. Good for all that ails you. I won’t charge you a thing for a taste.”
The queen’s automaton tilted her head. “Welcome to Trader-der- der-der-Dare-Dare-Trader’s Square.”
Dare’s heart stuttered along with the replica’s vocal recording. Had it just said—? No, that was preposterous. It had to be a coincidence.
A man walked by and kicked the platform, the hollow thud making Dare cringe. He no doubt believed, as anyone with good sense would, that the gears within had jammed. As he passed, one of the queen’s metal eyelids lowered over a jeweled eye, which was emitting a soft blue glow. It looked decidedly like a wink. Impossible.
“The artist’ll be hearing about that little glitch I’ll wager. Come on, now. Time for my famous remedy.” The woman tugged on her arm but Dare shook her head. Seeing the queen’s likeness had only increased her urgency and reinforced her determination to complete her mission. Visiting with this pleasant unfortunate had no part in it.
“You are kind, Miss—”
“Thrice, is me. Lucy Thrice.”
Dare nodded. “You are kind, Miss Thrice.” She politely but firmly
disengaged herself from the woman’s grime-covered grasp. “Unfortunately I must be on my way.”
“Listen to that,” a male voice drawled behind her. “If I closed my eyes, I’d be sure a lady from the Hill had come to visit with those sparklin’ manners, instead of a dirty lowborn boy.”
She saw Lucy’s mud-brown eyes narrow. “So would I. The lady part leastwise. I’m thinking we’ve found our special bird.”