The ocean-myth motif of the mosaic around the main doors of the castle was carried through to the Presentation Room. Other mosaics had been created between each window, and the stained glass imagery also illustrated the legends of the sea. There were mermaids and selkies, monstrous kraken, and other creatures he did not immediately recognize.
At the far end of the room, a single enormous chair sat upon a platform. Fish and serpents and tentacles had been carved into the mahogany arms and legs and back of the chair, and above it three vast stained glass windows had been placed to create a triptych of the sea god, Poseidon. Upon Poseidon’s head sat a golden crown whose arched points rose in the shape of waves.
King Hunyadi sat upon his chair—what passed for a throne in this room—and wore the very same crown. The Crown of Poseidon. Dozens of other people filled the room, gathered on either side of a long blue carpet that bisected the stone floor, but in the king’s presence they seemed invisible. There were armored guards and robed attendants, and nearest the king there were several servants in blue and green, obviously awaiting his instructions.
To the left of the king sat Hy’Bor, the Atlantean, his primary advisor. Despite the arrow that he had plucked from his chest at dusk, the sorcerer seemed in perfect health. He was pale, but that was apparently typical of his kind. He watched Oliver and Kitsune with his lips pressed tightly together and his eyes full of malevolence.
As they strode toward the platform with its high chair, Oliver heard Kitsune growl low in her throat. Nervous, he shot her a sidelong glance, wondering if she had finally snapped. Any threat to the king now and he was sure they would be executed on the spot. Perhaps right there on the three steps that led up to the platform. For that very reason, he had kept his hands clasped behind him as he walked, making certain that no one could claim he made a grab for the sword that hung in its scabbard at his side.
But Kitsune’s attention was not on the king at all. She sniffed the air and peered off to the right, toward a cluster of people Oliver presumed had gathered to plead for the king’s aid or intercession on some matter or another.
“Stop,” Oliver whispered.
The fox-woman glared at him, her eyes slits and one corner of her mouth lifted to reveal tiny, animal teeth. Oliver flinched at the ferocity of that glance.
“We have enemies here,” she rasped, voice so low that even he could barely hear.
The sergeant whose hand Oliver had broken stood just ahead to one side of the carpet. The man’s wrist was splinted and bandaged but he still seemed formidable. He frowned as he watched them whispering to one another, then raised his other hand.
“Silence,” said one of the guards behind them, and Oliver tensed, believing he was about to be struck. No blow came, however, and by then it was too late for him to respond to Kitsune, for they had crossed the length of the Presentation Room.
“Your Highness, as requested, the Intruder, Oliver Bascombe, and Kitsune of the Borderkind,” the sergeant announced in a loud, formal voice. He bowed his head and backed away from the carpet.
King Hunyadi studied them a moment. With his crown and silver-blue robe, he looked every inch the monarch. His blue eyes were clear and intelligent and regarded those before him as a scientist does his experiments. Yet there was still much of the fisherman in his bearing, in his broad shoulders, and in his genial, warm features.
Beside him, the Atlantean glanced out at the gathered petitioners.
Kitsune shifted from one foot to another beside Oliver, but it was not the scrutiny of the king that made her skittish. She also glanced back at the cluster of petitioners. Her hood was back, but she drew the fur cloak around her tightly as though the temptation to transform was almost more than she could bear.
“These are strange and difficult times,” King Hunyadi said. He spoke loudly enough for all to hear, but all of his attention was focused on the Intruder and the Borderkind who had gained entrance into his summer residence.
“Tell me your story, Oliver,” said the king. “Beginning to end.”
All was silent in the room. The king had spoken.
“Of course, Your Highness,” Oliver replied. A ripple of unease went through him, but he chalked it up to the weight of Hunyadi’s attention. “It begins with a conspiracy, I think, but that will become obvious. And anyway, that’s not how it started for me. There was a blizzard, you see, on the night before I was supposed to be married—”
In the end, it took far less time to tell the tale than Oliver would have imagined. Living it had given the events texture and substance that could not be easily expressed. Yet though the story was told in twenty or thirty minutes, its significance was not lost on the king. Hunyadi attended with great interest, nodding several times as though suspicions had been confirmed. His expression grew grimmer with each new twist of the tale.
When Oliver had finished, King Hunyadi took a deep breath and stroked his beard. He looked pointedly at Hy’Bor. Oliver had debated whether or not to reveal that Ty’Lis, another Atlantean sorcerer, had been named as the man behind the Myth Hunters, worried that he might be endangering Frost, Blue Jay, and the others by doing so. Yet, in the end, he felt he had to disclose all he knew.
Hy’Bor did not raise any challenge to his claims, but he maintained an expression of aloof disbelief that Oliver supposed was comment enough.
Even so, the way Hunyadi looked at his advisor told Oliver the king would be having a very interesting conversation with Hy’Bor later.
Oliver had also felt reluctant to reveal Collette’s abduction and his belief that she was a captive of the Sandman. Their visit to Twillig’s Gorge had proven that there could be spies anywhere—and with Hy’Bor standing on the platform beside the throne, he had no doubt that was the case at Otranto, too. But he had no choice. If the king allowed him to live, Collette would still be condemned as an Intruder. He had to make the appeal for both of them.
Hunyadi sniffed in apparent disapproval and turned his focus upon Kitsune. “You are Borderkind. You did not have to remain here. Hy’Bor would have used magic to restrain you, but I instructed that you be left alone. At any moment you might have slipped through the Veil and escaped whatever fate awaits you here. Why did you stay?”
The fox-woman raised her chin defiantly, her black, silken hair radiant in the glow of a thousand candles. “I vowed to help Oliver to reach the monarchs of the Two Kingdoms, to ask your indulgence and mercy. If he survives, he has pledged to aid the Borderkind in uncovering the truth of the murderous conspiracy against us. He is my friend and companion. I would not leave him.”
The king nodded slowly, then turned to Oliver again.
“The sword,” he said.
Oliver instinctively reached for the blade and its scabbard, intending to remove it and return it to its rightful owner.
“Guards!” Hy’Bor barked.
“No!” Hunyadi snapped, holding up a hand. He shot an angry glance at his advisor, then turned a gentler expression upon Oliver. “If David Koenig believed you worthy to bear that weapon, I will not dispute it. You may keep the sword, Mr. Bascombe. However, there are laws in the Two Kingdoms, and by now you are well familiar with those concerning Intruders. They are dangerous to our way of life. You and your sister, sir, are dangerous to us.
“You are also correct that Intruders may, in certain circumstances, be given clemency. This may only happen with a joint order by the monarchs of both kingdoms. To that end, I grant you the same boon that I granted to the wise Professor Koenig. One year, Mr. Bascombe, in which you and your sister must prove yourselves worthy of the trust of the Two Kingdoms. If my friend the king of Yucatazca allows you the same boon, at the end of that year we will determine together if the two of you will be allowed to live. Otherwise, a new death warrant will be sworn out for both of you.
“I must also caution you that should the king of Yucatazca not grant you this boon, the warrant for your death in Euphrasia will be reinstated. Of course, at that point it will hardly matter, as you will likely already have been executed.”
Hunyadi grinned broadly, morbidly amused.
Oliver stared at him, a smile blossoming slowly on his own face. It took a moment for the words to truly sink in. There were still enormous obstacles to overcome, of course. Another king to persuade. Not to mention the search for some deed that would prove his trustworthiness and make this mercy permanent. But it was a beginning. For the moment, he was still alive.
Beside the king, Hy’Bor scowled.
The Atlantean raised a hand, pointed a finger at the gathered petitioners. “This will not do. Kill them.”
Kitsune spun, snarling. She whipped up her hood, the copper-red fur obscuring her face. Then she dropped into a crouch and diminished instantly into the fox.
Hunyadi shouted to his guards as he stood, and he reached out for his advisor. The king produced a short sword from within the folds of his robe. Hy’Bor was a sorcerer; sickly yellow light began to glimmer all over him, to gleam in his eyes and crackle around his hands.
The Atlantean lunged at his king.
Oliver saw no more. He twisted around at the sound of a mighty roar that erupted from amongst the petitioners. Two massive figures stood and threw off brown, hooded, monastic robes to reveal themselves. They were lumbering, slavering things, wild boars that walked on two legs, tusks jutting up from their lower jaws, jaundice-yellow eyes glaring with homicidal frenzy.
“What the hell are they?” Oliver shouted as the other petitioners screamed and began to scatter.
Kitsune had become the fox by instinct. But now she changed again, regaining her human aspect, standing beside him.
“Battle Swine,” she said flatly. “Stupid, but fierce.”
Guards with swords drawn shoved people out of the way, working their way toward the Battle Swine, but the Hunters were already moving. One of them gored the first guard to reach him, tusks puncturing leather armor easily. He tossed the soldier aside, blood staining ivory.
Oliver drew his sword.
Kitsune grabbed his wrist. “No. You achieved what you came for. There’s no point in staying.”
Her grip on him firm, she waved her free hand in the air and it began to shimmer, just beside her, a slit in the Veil appearing. Kitsune stepped through, pulling Oliver after her. The Battle Swine were shrieking, snorting, and hacking at innocents and guards alike as they rushed to fulfill their orders. They were close enough that Oliver wrinkled his nose at the stench, perhaps ten feet away. One of the Swine plunged his own sword into a guard that put himself between it and Oliver, and blood sprayed from the wound, spattering Oliver’s boots.
Kitsune hauled him through.
In the last moment, Oliver glanced up at the throne. King Hunyadi had driven his short blade into Hy’Bor. The magic that animated the Atlantean had been snuffed like a candle flame. Behind Hy’Bor was an eight-foot, hideously ugly troll. Where he’d come from, Oliver had no idea, but it made him realize that Hunyadi had suspected Hy’Bor’s treachery and had been prepared.
The troll had crushed Hy’Bor’s skull between his hands. Oliver suspected it was not the king’s blade that had ended the traitor’s life.
Hunyadi glanced at Oliver and gave a small nod as if to spur him on. Then Kitsune and Oliver were gone from the Presentation Room, from Otranto, and from the world of the legendary.
For just a moment, he felt the membrane of the Veil, or at least the pressure of it around him. The substance of reality warped and his eyes could not process what they were seeing. He squeezed them closed, staggered, and as he fell forward he felt a gust of frigid wind.
Oliver dropped to his knees on frozen ground covered by a thin crust of snow. He shivered with the cold and opened his eyes. The shift of location, of reality, had become almost familiar, but this was something different. They were in the mountains somewhere in Europe, above a lake that seemed quite similar to the one at Otranto, down in the valley below. But the lake was frozen and snow covered the mountaintops. The sky was a lustrous blue, perfect and clean. It was afternoon and the sunlight gleamed on the pure white snow.
“I’m not certain where we are,” Kitsune said, walking several paces in the general direction of the lake.
Oliver laughed. “I don’t care. I really don’t. We’re home. In my world. For the next few minutes, I’m just going to…”
He could not even finish the thought. This was a brief respite, he knew. Collette needed him. The Sandman held her life in his hands. Wherever this was, Switzerland or Germany, he figured, but wherever, they couldn’t stay. But for just a moment, he had to relish it. Hunyadi had granted his boon, spared him and Collette for now. The conspiracy beyond the Veil had begun to unravel with the revelation of Hy’Bor’s treachery. They’d escaped the Battle Swine.
“Pigs,” he whispered to himself, and he chuckled, shaking his head. “Fucking pigs.”
Then he sobered. Grimly he rose and strode after Kitsune. She turned to glance at him, then returned her attention to the frozen lake below.
“We have to go to England. All the way back to England, from wherever here is,” he said. The Dustman could only be encountered in an English nursery, and the knowledge was heavy upon his heart. “It’s the wrong direction, Kit. I know there’s nothing we can do without his help. But for Christ’s sake, it’s the wrong direction.”
Kitsune turned to him. With a mischievous grin, she reached up and touched the tip of his nose.
“I have an idea.”
The night sky caressed Blue Jay as he rode the wind higher. Dark as it was, the moon was bright enough that he could see his companions emerging from a dense forest onto a hillside. A valley lay below and they descended the hill without hesitation, headed southwest. The icy edges of Frost’s profile gleamed and sparkled in the moonlight, and the others followed. His injuries had been nearly healed within minutes of their return to Perinthia, and now, hours later, there was no sign that he had ever been wounded.