The landscape slowly flattened out. The conifers disappeared behind them. The fields and low places turned swampy and hummed with insects. Jerryck had to use magic to repel the little blood suckers as the road weaved around, between, and sometimes through the bogs. The closer they got to denser civilization, the more the standing waters were filled in and cultivated, making way for noble estates. As they drew near the Shontese capital city of Quexintill, Nita was shut into her carriage once again, sparing her from the poverty she would otherwise have to see. The guard with the cleft chin nudged his horse close to Jerryck’s, boxing him in right beside carriage. “Remember me?” “Garret,” Jerryck said. The guard beamed at him. “You remembered!” “I’ve lost count how many times you and several others have reminded me on this trip,” Jerryck said. “We reminded you as many times as necessary.” Garret grinned momentarily. Then he dropped it, and his face turned serious. “I don’t suppose we could convince you to ride in the carriage with Nita? Just this once?” “No,” Jerryck said. “Stop asking.” Garret sighed. “Had to give it one last try.” His serious expression turned into a scowl as they entered the outskirts of the city. He kept his face turned out, watching the buildings and the people as they made their way up the street. He must have somehow still kept an eye to the other side as well. Every time Jerryck tried to maneuver so he wasn’t boxed in, Garret maneuvered with him, keeping him pinned. Jerryck slumped in his saddle, keeping his eyes forward, off the poverty around them. He complained, “This city hasn’t changed at all.” “Did you expect it to?” Garret asked. Some of the people close to the edge of the street jumped away as a window above them opened and someone dumped foul smelling sludge out to the street below. Jerryck wrinkled his nose, trying to not to gag on the reek. “I keep hoping it’ll start looking more like Kershet.” “It looks like parts of Kershet,” Garret said. He didn’t look much affected by any of it. “No parts I’ve seen.” Keeping his eyes on the street ahead of them wasn’t helping. Jerryck could still hear everything, smell everything. He swatted at a stray fly, sending it back to the swarms over piles of stink at the foundations of the buildings. “Lots of parts I’ve seen,” Garret said. “You grew up behind a wall in a fancy house,” Jerryck said. Garret spared him a glance. “Didn’t you?” “I was adopted,” Garret said. “And I ran away a lot.” He raised his chin slightly at a beggar hobbling across the wide avenue in front of the caravan. One of the guards riding behind the carriage spurred his horse forward. The beggar wasn’t quite fast enough with his limp, and was within a hair’s breadth of some of the people in the caravan as they passed him. The guard reached out, and jerked the man’s ragged shirt, making him drop a shiv and a leather pouch of the style Brendish guards carried coins in. Jerryck hadn’t seen him cut it from the person he’d nearly brushed against. The corner of Garret’s mouth twitched, a shadow of a smirk almost broke his scowl. “This city doesn’t look all that different from the darker parts of Kershet. And those haven’t changed during my entire life. It’s been, what, a few years since you came to Shontarra?” “The last time the Gathering of Seats held a convention in Kemetullah,” Jerryck said. “And I didn’t come here, to this city. I went down the coast and took a ship at the border to go around Shontarra.” “You still had guards that were familiar with the country.” “I told Terrance I didn’t need them.” Jerryck refused to look at the filthy children’s faces peering at them from between the crooked, dilapidated buildings. “I don’t like going through this country. I don’t like the poverty.” “You could tell the king you don’t need guards until you run out of breath,” Garret said. “It won’t change anything. He puts guards on people that are important to him. That’s the only reason some of us are here. I’ve never been to Shontarra. Same with Deek. But since the princess is here, we’re here.” “Deek?” “Scowly man, crooked nose,” Garret reminded him. He leaned a little closer. “He got it broke a few too many times by picking fights as a kid.” “I don’t want to know that,” Jerryck said. Garret went back to the original topic. “So you thought this city would change?” “Wishing, more like. It hasn’t changed since the first time I came through,” Jerryck said. He turned at the sounds of a scuffle behind them. The guards were smacking around another couple of beggars, and relieving them of Brendish marked parcels. Jerryck turned forward again. “I wasn’t even an adult then. It’s been more than two decades. Something should have changed somewhere.” “I’m sure the people who live this way wish it would,” Garret said. “What were you doing here as a kid?” “We were going to a convention in Kemetullah,” Jeryrck said. “The only one my mentor ever took me to. We only stayed for a day, then left early. He was mad, too. Mad enough to leave in the middle of the night. I went to bed, and then woke up the next morning in a carriage on the road with him heading north. He never would tell me why.” “Interesting,” Garret said. “I never knew that. I wonder if Cade knows.” “Cade?” “Skinny guard.” Garret almost smirked again. “Really good at gathering information. Disappears a lot. I expect to see him only intermittently once we get to the palace. He said something about a rumor of his favorite contact there running into trouble. He’s going to want to get all the details.” The front of their procession reached the closed gates in the walls surrounding the palace, and stopped. They stood out fairly stark in the empty gap between where the walls rose up, and the space where no city buildings were allowed. About forty feet across, the strip was heavily patrolled by guards wearing the red and gray of the Shontese prince. All the beggars and cutpurses slunk back into the squalor of the city and disappeared. One of the guards manning the gate held up one hand to them and called, “Halt!” Jerryck looked back down the line of their caravan. Every single one of them was already stopped, most of them still back where the street was between the buildings, where they were exposed to the less desirable elements of the city. The Brendish herald at the head of the procession sat stiff and straight on his mount, raising his voice to be heard clearly. “Her Royal Highness, Princess Nita, heir to the throne of Brend, come to bring the condolences of her father King Terrance to Prince Sanbralio, the Esteemed Leader of Shontarra.” “You may go no farther,” the gate guard said. “Did you not hear me?” The herald gaped at the guard. He waved at the crimson and gold banner carried by the man next to him. “This isn’t just any nobleman’s daughter. We’ve come all the way from Coraline Palace.” Something clattered behind them, back among the city buildings. Jerryck’s horse shuffled nervously. So did several of the guards’. Tajor inserted himself right by the carriage window, so near he could have touched it without extending his arm. Garret inched closer to Jerryck, boxing him in tighter. “Our orders are not to open for anyone,” the gate guard said. The herald pulled out an envelope with a red and gray wax seal. He waved it in front of the gate guard’s face. “While on the road, we received a correspondence from Prince Sanbralio that said we were welcome to enter the palace as his personal guests.” The gate guard looked left and right, down and up, at the other Shontese guards, anywhere but at the envelope with the seal. “My orders don’t allow any exceptions.” “How can your orders not allow for guests of your prince?” the herald demanded. He shook his head in disbelief. “Send someone inside to let Prince Sanbralio know his royal guest has arrived.” “We’re not allowed to do that right now.” The gate guard’s voice was getting quieter. Jerryck had to strain to hear him above the rest of the city noise. “I’ll send through the message as soon as I have permission to do so. Until then, everyone seeking entrance to the palace is advised to find lodgings elsewhere.” The window of Nita’s carriage opened and she stuck her head out. She immediately choked, and slapped a hand over her nose. Tajor leaned close to her and said, “Breathe through your mouth until your nose adjusts.” “I have been breathing through my mouth.” Her words sounded like she had a cold with her nose plugged by her hand. “I didn’t realize how much of the smell the shutters had blocked. Why are we stopped? What’s going on?” “They’re refusing to open the gates to the palace for us,” Jerryck told her. “They said we need to find lodging somewhere else until he has permission to let anyone inside know that you’re here.” “What?” Nita straightened up so fast, she almost hit her head on the top of the window frame. “I can’t see there being any lodging fit for her here.” The head of her bodyguards looked back the way they’d come and wrinkled his nose. “Reports are that most nobles won’t even stay in this city, they go to estates nearby.” Masorno had one of those. He likely would be delighted to host the Princess, especially if he was going to also put Jerryck in his debt by doing so. As galling as that was, it would be better for Nita than staying in the city. “We can go to Magician Masorno’s estate,” he told her. “It’s bad enough that you’re going to apologize for doing nothing wrong,” she said. “I’m not going to put you in a situation where you have to grovel with gratitude as well.” She leaned out farther, waving her arm, shouting, getting the attention of the gate guard. He looked directly at her, instead of avoiding the eye contact. He said, “Please tell the princess—” “I am the princess,” Nita yelled. She pointed her finger, and stabbed it repeatedly at him. “If I find lodging anywhere else, it will be on my way back home. And when you’re allowed to take a message to Prince Sanbralio, you can tell him that the next time he hears from Brend, it will be a formal complaint from my father about this insult I received!” Lord Andreno rode up on a horse from inside the bars of the gate, a small escort behind him. “What’s going on here?” “The Princess of Brend is asking for admittance.” The gate guard fidgeted, and wouldn’t look Andreno in the eye either. “As you ordered—” “Why haven’t you opened the gate for her?” Andreno sidled his horse up close. “You ordered—” “Your orders be damned!” Andreno shouted. “Are you trying to start a war? I ought to have you laid out and stretched on a rack. Open the gate this instant!” All the gate guards jumped to obey, not just the one. The moment the gate opened wide enough, Andreno beckoned them all to come through. Nita ducked back into her carriage and they moved forward. The horrors on the city side of the palace wall made everything inside ugly by contrast. The grounds were scoured clean of filth and poverty, lying about the truth of the city that surrounded it. Everything sat immaculate and precise to the point to sterility. Flowers bloomed everywhere, delicately arranged in defiance of natural growth, their perfume masking the stench outside the walls. Water fountains tinkled perversely, mocking the quality of water the rest of the city drank and washed in. Birds in cages sang mournful melodies. Hedges stood trimmed into shapes of people and animals, frozen and trapped in place like slaves. The carriage rolled to a stop on the raked gravel drive in front of the palace steps. Tajor acted as footman. The elite and Nita’s bodyguards dismounted, keeping in close proximity to her, keeping Jerryck at her side. Not that he would be anywhere else at the moment. “I apologize for that mess there.” Andreno thumbed over his shoulder back at the gate. He dismounted too. “We’ve locked the palace. No one comes or goes, except me and those bearing essentials, like the letter you sent us from the road. We don’t want people bothering Uncle too much right now.” Nita nodded curtly. “Understandable.” “I left the gate guards explicit instructions for your arrival,” Andreno went on. “They must have misunderstood me. I’m so embarrassed about this.” “I’m just glad you were there to let us in,” Nita said. “Happy to be of assistance.” Andreno gave her a huge smile. He bobbed his head at Jerryck. “Happy to see you again as well, Lord Magician. Our court magician, Lord Masorno insisted on special preparations for your arrival.” “Wonderful.” Jerryck tried not to sound too sarcastic, and struggled to keep from grimacing. Knowing Masorno, it would likely be an audience to hear the apology.