The girl pushed through the crowd, unmindful of the curses following her as she trod on boots and hemlines. The curses could have come from or been aimed at anyone. The crowd was a river of confusion, winding its way into the banquet hall.
She half-expected to be mobbed with questions concerning the Whitehair, but except for a few curious stares, no one approached her. Her Shivelite birth, she realized, which had been a disadvantage since she arrived, now served her in good stead. The nobility was not interested in her opinions; they were too full of their own. The common folk simply eyed the tables laden with food, eager for the matter to be solved and the King to appear so the feast could begin.
Her moment of drama was over, and Mirella was reduced to her normal circumstances, anonymous and for the most part, alone.
Snatches of conversation buzzed in the air.
“Can you believe that savage called for a Third Stripe?” The masculine voice tried to cover his surprise with scorn. “The Shautu has been too long in the hills. The Deep has not been plumbed since the days of Saar and never will be again.”
“True,” agreed his companion. “But the possibility of an Axis child is not so far flung. There is the prophecy and–“
“The prophecy is over three hundred years old! Do you really believe–“
“A prophecy is a prophecy,” the second voice affirmed.
A group of aristocratic young women broke off their conversation as Mirella approached but didn’t ask her to join them. However, a shapely brunette arched her brows as she passed.
“No wonder the chit remembered him,” she said. Her voice was coy, knowledgeable. “Did you notice his buckskins?”
“Jutting,” added the blonde.
“Rutting,” added a third, and the laughter was explosive.
Mirella felt the heat rise in her face but continued onward. She pressed her way here, squeezed past there. Their speculations annoyed her, but at least she found she could gauge them. The men were concerned with the Hunter’s message, the women with the man himself.
Mirella saw a sudden opening between the bellies of two portly gentlemen and darted forward, only to be detained by a firm grip on her arm. Someone with long fingernails had grabbed her, and they were digging deep. Blood of the Tree! It was her obnoxious roommate, Lady Bresca.
“Mirella, what on earth are you doing?” Bresca’s blue eyes, often described as limpid pools, were now surprising alert. “The King has ordered us out of the Great Throne Room. You’re going back in!”
“My handkerchief,” Mirella lied; it was a poor contrivance, but it was the best she could do. “I dropped it as I was pushed by the crowd.”
“A handkerchief?” The blue eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Have you lost your wits? A handkerchief would be impossible to find!”
“I must try. It was a gift from the Queen.” Mirella tried to pull away but Lady Bresca’s grip held. She’d always treated her this way, as if she were a nobody whose wants didn’t matter, making no attempt to hide the fact that she resented sharing her chamber with an “unblooded” girl, and, until now, Mirella hadn’t minded. Now, however, she was riled. “Let go of me,” she hissed, prying away a finger.
“Is something amiss, ladies?” Lord Birknell, a lanky noble with a flair for poetry and Lady Bresca’s most persistent admirer, suddenly joined over them. The hold on Mirella’s arm vanished as Bresca fluttered her white hands in explanation. “Mirella has chosen now of all times to look for a handkerchief. Can you believe it?”
“It was a gift from the Queen and of the finest lace,” repeated Mirella. The lie now fit her mouth.
“Ah, the little Shivelite girl.” Lord Birknell peered down at her sympathetically. “May I be of assistance?”
“No, I think, . . . no.” Mirella grabbed Bresca’s hand and placed it within Lord Birknell’s, covering both with her own. She looked up at Birknell with all the guileless candor she could manage. “I couldn’t possibly take you away from Lady Bresca. She admires you so.”
Then, she bolted, careful not to look back until she was out of Bresca’s range. She needn’t have bothered. Lord Birknell was leaning attentively over Bresca while she gazed up, her eyes limpid again.
Mirella pushed her way past the last barrier of lords and ladies. Only then did she look back in earnest, scanning the crowd. At this moment, her slightest move mattered. She was taking a terrible risk using the secret passageway with so many present, not to mention the possibility of being spotted by one of Elymas’s dreaded Sacred Servants. If she were spotted by one of those red-robed minions, no, two, for they always travelled in pairs, no explanations would be plausible. She searched the crowd carefully, but none were present. Doubtless, they were spread about in the banquet hall, picking up every careless word. Of course, they reported directly to Elymas; tonight there would be much to report.
Mirella turned the corner and started down a dark, narrow corridor. Here, there were no torches, the only light here came from the banquet room itself and didn’t extend far. She paused at the broken stone, the same place that she always did, before plunging into the real blackness. A deep breath of air — her last scent of familiar the cold — and steadied herself. She glided forward, allowing herself to be swallowed by the dark.
The only comfort of the corridor was that it didn’t go on endlessly. The hall was short, disguised as a builder’s mistake which, once begun, had been stopped by a stone wall. Unlit, unswept. Someone at some point had thought to hang an oversized tapestry of the Tree of Life on the wall, as if to emphasize the finality of the passage.
Mirella wondered how many others besides herself knew about the small, secret door.