The kitchen was warm, the castle windows were wide, and one of those things felt like comfort and safety while the other didn’t. Aaron had taken it for granted, when all he’d seen of the world was the plateau, that uptowners liked their big windows. But they were a thing made popular after the dragon’s pact was put in place. A privilege of being so far inland, behind city walls and mountains and agreements made long ago, when the uptowners had moved out of Twokins to live in a place that didn’t guard against attacks from above. Salt’s Mane and the fort at the enclave had kept to their arrow slits.

Which was to say: when Aaron sat down in the castle’s kitchen, he sat with his back to a wall. And if that wall happened to have an oven in it, and something wonderful smelling cooking inside, well, all the better.

“Letter for you,” Aaron said, holding out a rather unlabeled envelope. It wasn’t as if it was meant to be delivered by anyone but him. Aaron wasn’t clear on whether he was still a messenger, but he’d two deliveries left to make, regardless.

Johnathan Baker accepted the letter with the look of someone who wanted to tear it open immediately, but was held back by such minor matters as illiteracy. And possibly by the contents not being fit for any eyes but his own.

“Are you still going home?” Aaron asked.

“Enclavers are forbidden to travel,” the boy said, tucking the letter away. “For our own good, of course. Still, I’ve already taken the days off, so I might as well use them. It’s a shame I’m not a forester. They’re proper citizens; no one’s stopping them.”

True enough statements. But they had interesting implications for that caravan spot John had paid for weeks ago, and just what name he’d planned to travel under. Because among all those other words, Aaron certainly hadn’t heard a no. And there were plenty of foresters just as blonde as enclavers.


“These,” John said, sliding a tray of pastries from the oven, “are the very last thing I’m making here.”

“Can I have some?” Aaron asked, even as the boy was keeping his body between Aaron’s hand and the tray.

“These are a special order. And don’t you dare bat them to the floor, I’ll throw them out myself if you do.”

Aaron’s most soulful staring couldn’t change the boy’s mind, as he switched the pastries over to a fancy plate for serving.

“I don’t suppose you asked the princess if I could borrow that book of yours during my days off?” John asked.

“About that,” Aaron said. “I’ve been wondering. Just what scribe have you been trusting, to be reading and writing letters no messenger is supposed to carry? Your brother can read. Your mother can write. And you aren’t half so dim as that teacher up in Helland seems to think you are.”


John looked at him, for a long moment. Then he smiled, sweet as always. “Stupid enclavers hear more than smart ones.”

“If you don’t want it for practicing your reading, what do you want it for?”

“Aaron,” the boy said. “Aaron. That is a second edition, the original source of the kingdom tales, and I have spent months watching you complain that it being fully illuminated just makes it harder to read. It is beautiful and it is wasted on you and I would like to look at each and every one of its pages. Please.”

“...I can leave it here while I’m at the meeting,” said Aaron, who was not even going to pretend to understand that. But the book was already in his messenger bag, so it was hardly a bother to leave it with someone who appreciated it while he was off watching His Majesty get bowed to. “Just leave it here when you go.”

“You’re a good friend,” John said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been a better one.”

“We’ve both the time to do better, now.”

“I would like that,” said the boy, with a smile.

Aaron swiped a few pastries on his way out. It was a thing his friends had to expect of him.

* * *

His second delivery was to Connor: a tidy little stack, from a brother who hadn’t known whether he’d be accompanying them home or not.

“Only eight?” the prince said. “I wrote him ten.”

“You can complain to him directly, then,” Aaron said. That was a privilege the boy had, now that his brother was home. “Have you seen him yet?”

“Yeah.” Connor’s smile was a soft thing. “He said we’d talk more, after the meeting. But he looked good.”

“He did,” Aaron agreed. “Are you going?”

“To the first meeting all spring that I’m allowed to skip? Absolutely not,” His Highness said. “They’re not even going to do anything at this one. It’ll just be hours of groveling, and he’s going to have to be all gracious as he forgives them, and then we’re all going to pretend they weren’t trying to crown me while he was gone. It’ll be awkward enough at every meeting after this; I don’t need to be there for all the kneeling and fealty swearing.”

The same as they would have done for Connor, if things had ended differently. No, Aaron didn’t imagine the boy wanted to be there for that. Not until—not unless—it was his own time to take the throne.

Today was only about having those inside acknowledge Orin as their king. A thing Aaron would gladly skip, as well.

* * *

Orin’s first order of business had been to call a meeting of all those needed to formally clear his name. The orders had been sent out before Aaron and his sister had even stepped inside the castle. Seeing as a significant number of those people had been elsewhere in the city when His Majesty rode triumphantly home, the actual meeting had been rather delayed. Aaron had been checking the hall while he was about his deliveries. Now that there was a fair number of people milling about the doors to the council chambers, he actually bothered to go over.

He passed by the Iron Captain and the armored merchant’s representative, gave a nod to Lochlann and Rose, as the princess waited with all due dignity—and a fair bit of barely contained excitement—for her very first meeting, and went to stand at His Majesty’s side with the other councilors. His Majesty had not entered yet, and so neither did they; they were lining up to either side of the door like an honor guard. The investigation committee, on the other hand, had already been waved to enter. Orin was making a point of greeting each one at the door, like he was checking off a list in his head.

It was technically an open meeting. But their king was clearly sick of the spectacle of his own life, and had declined to issue a citywide announcement. The witnesses to this particular piece of history would be limited to a few of their fellow caravan travelers, sitting scattered around the stands.

Jeshinkra stood as door guard, of course. Though she’d less an air of glaring and more of gloating, as she watched those who’d most actively sought His Majesty’s death standing like petitioners on the kirin bone floor.

“Petty,” Aaron said, with approval.

“Excuse me?” Orin asked, like he was somehow still not used to the way Aaron talked.

“You didn’t have extra chairs brought in,” Aaron said. “And everyone thinks this meeting is going to be long.”

“Not so long as all that,” the king said, smiling thinly. “But it should be satisfying, at least.”

“Where’s the Lady?” Aaron asked, because he had pastries in his pocket, and a distinct lack of anyone to attempt sweetening them up with.

“Excused,” Orin said. “Having the Late Wake back me here is not what I need.”

Fair enough. Adelaide was already inside with the other committee members. She’d stood as witness to His Majesty’s poisoning, and half the investigation committee was hers; it was her word they were here to listen to, not a skin stealer’s.

“I don’t suppose I could be excused, as well,” asked Aaron, ever hopeful.

Orin looked at him, overly long. “Are you going to be espousing your support of doppels?”

“Absolutely. For example: do you know what would be useful to our kingdom? Those dragons from the coast.”

“You’ve looked at our situation,” Orin said, “and decided that the best addition is more dragons?”

“They’re here already. Better they’re here as friends.”

“It really doesn’t bother you,” His Majesty said, like that was only now sinking in.

“When has it ever?” asked Jeshinkra, from her doorway guarding. And incidental eavesdropping.

Orin looked to her. She gave him a glance over her shoulder, and a shrug back. He let out a long breath, and turned his gaze back to Aaron. “Fine; you’re excused. But I’ll expect you at the next. That’s when the real discussions begin.”

“One day I’ll get you to kick me from this council completely,” Aaron said.

“Today is not that day, apparently,” His Majesty answered wryly.

Aaron gave the man one last look, all jokes aside. “You’re sure you don’t want me there?”

“I’m sure you’ll bring more trouble than I need, at this particular meeting.”

Aaron nodded to the man. And let out breath. “Right. By the way, if I turn up dead, it was absolutely the Lady who did it.”

His Majesty gave a short laugh, like that was a joke.

Adelaide had moved away from those inside; she caught Aaron’s arm as he turned to leave, and pulled him a little away from the others. Then she broached the topic she’d long been avoiding on the road. “Aaron. My father— Our father…”

Today would be about the king, not the duke. But the man was still locked away under the castle, on charges of a murder Aaron’s testimony could help clear him of.

“He doesn’t have to die,” Adelaide said. His sister didn’t say please. Just held his gaze.

Duke Sung had been so against a doppel as king that he’d been willing to get himself and his retinue killed to out Orin over the possibility. It didn’t bode well for his opinions on integrating doppels into their society, in general. The man didn’t have to die, no. But he might need to.

“We’ll talk,” Aaron promised her. “Later.”

Back down the hall, His Majesty was finally deigning to enter. The investigation committee parted for him and his council; he’d offered Princess Rose his arm, and led her to what had been Mrs. White’s seat. It wasn’t quite so powerful a statement as the empty seat of the crown prince would have been. But it was as close as she would get, in a rather literal way, and she was smiling rather radiantantly at her brother as she accepted it. And everyone could see just how happy she was, because while she’d put a scarf in her hair the moment she’d gotten back to the castle, she’d not covered her face. Aaron paused a moment to share a small smile with Lochlann, as the man took up position across from Jeshinkra in the doorway; then he really did leave. He still had those pastries, and a much less formal sort of meeting to attend.

He passed by the Iron Captain and the armored merchant again on his way. The two were apparently too caught up in their conversation to notice that the rest of the council had gone inside.

“Would you please just trust me?” said the merchant, who was a Rafferty, which inspired in Aaron rather the opposite of trust.

“Not if ‘trust me’ is the best you have,” the Iron Captain said back.

Which Aaron also didn’t trust on principle, and even less so when he recalled a chat between these two in this very hall, on a night he’d been escaping from the dungeon. The tapestries hung on the wall now as they did then, though the stained glass windows across from them cast warmer shades than they had by moonlight, and mostly on the walls. Kirin and griffin, dragon and kelpie all hung in the dark spaces between bands of tinted sun.

Aaron took a step past the two conspirators. Then he turned about. Because this was broad daylight, in a castle he lived in now, and if the redcoats were to be called it would not be him locked away this time.

“Something the rest of His Majesty’s council should know?” he asked them, perfectly pleasant.

“I’d imagine,” said the Iron Captain, “given that I’d like to know it, as well.”

“Later,” Councilor Rafferty said. And that was all the more either of them got from him before he left. He did not go to the council chambers; another party excused from today’s proceedings, whether by the king or by himself.

The Iron Captain watched him leave, her mouth a thin line. Then she cast a sidelong glance at Aaron, all appraising. “My grandson was asking about the fastest routes south. For three or four, traveling without caravan. Your influence?”

“Mine?” asked Aaron. “I’m a respectable councilor.”

“My best friend was a cat. I don’t know what you are,” she said, “but you’re good for him.”

Which is not how he expected that sentence to end. The old woman reached out to set her hand on his shoulder, slow enough for him to step clear if he felt the need. There was a solidness to her grip, and whipcord muscles under her sleeve. She was old the way a tree was old, or a boulder: the weathering had only stripped out her weakness.

“I’d not hurt him, if I were you,” she advised.

The court had drowned that friend of hers. And she’d left behind her a king so badly mangled in his own bed that they still couldn’t prove it wasn’t some beastie’s attack. Aaron did not care to learn what would happen to the fool that hurt her grandson.

“Being me,” Aaron assured her, “I’d also not hurt him.”

She gave him a pat, like a proper doting grandmother; then she turned the opposite way the Rafferty had, and went to find her seat at His Majesty’s council table.

He’d have liked that to be the least terrifying conversation of the day. Unfortunately, he still had those pastries to deliver.

Aaron knocked at the Lady’s door. She opened it. She was wearing her blue dress again; her Death, in the same, was peering here and there about the Lady’s rooms with her hands clasped behind her back, like a child that had been told not to touch.

“And to what do I owe this visit, while every witness of import is off with our king?” the Lady asked, pouring herself a cup of tea. She got another cup down from a shelf—her Death stepped aside to allow it—and poured a second for him. Then the both of them sat at her round table, in the pleasant breeze from her open balcony doors, while she sipped and he did not.

“I got the ones you like,” Aaron said, offering out his pastries on their handkerchief.

“Funny,” she said, “so did I.”

The serving plate John had filled sat on her table, with rather fewer on it than he’d last seen. She picked up another and took a deliberate bite, holding his gaze.

“They’re not poisoned. I’m not trying to kill you. This time,” he felt compelled to add.

The Lady took another bite. Sipped her tea again. Did not break eye contact, even as Aaron set his own pastries down. They really weren’t poisoned. They were a peace offering; it was his knives that were here in case things went wrong. And the knowledge, as with the Iron Captain and the merchant before, that this was his home now, and he was not so easily disappeared as all that. The Lady had more secrets in need of protecting than he did.

Aaron pointedly took a bite of one of his own pastries. The pastries he had distinctly not poisoned. Like most things John made, the only thing he could really taste was sugar.

“So,” he said, “the Late Wake has doppels. Why did you want me to know that?”

“We could speak about that,” she said, “or we could talk of things you don’t already know the answer to.”

Her Death had wandered over. She’d leaned down to look under the table; with a little ha, she straightened back up. Aaron risked a glare in her very distracting direction. She held her hands up, and showed herself out to the balcony.

Meanwhile, the Lady had taken his silence for an answer in itself.

“There’s a thing that’s been bothering me since you first came. Aaron,” she said, and he realized she wasn’t using it as his name, but a name. “How did you know that the dead boy’s name was Aaron? You were already using it, by the time we spoke. Which implies rather interesting things, no matter which way I turn it. How should I view you?”

Aaron took another bite of pastry. “Are you sure you’re interested in answers from a dull thing like me?”

“Aaron,” she said, like a final conclusion, though not an unexpected one.

“Adejaunja,” he replied.

There was a power in names. They weren’t the sorts that could use it, but the weight of it hung between them all the same.

“What’s your real goal?” Aaron asked her.

“Saving humanity,” she said, with another sip, and after a little clearing of her throat.

“That’s it.”

“Of course not. That’s never just it; only dull things have a singular reason for each action. And you have been so very much more interesting, since you realized that little cave of yours wasn’t the whole world. Even if you’re still thinking like it is.”

“How did you even know about me? Why did you know about me?”

She waved her hand, like it was a minor thing, for an uptowner to know the Face of the Kindly Soul’s leader. The King in Two Kings, while the man had still lived.

“It’s not hard to slip a spy into the Downs, when the only test you ask of them is whether they’ve been doppeled.”

And the Late Wake was, after all, full of doppels. Which of his acquaintances, his friends or his enemies, had been hers?

“Someone once told me that being born is all we’re given,” she continued. “All the rest we must take, and there’s a whole world that’s gotten to it before us. Your little cave, this little isle; it’s time we stopped being dull. We’ll get your doppels their rights, yes. What comes next, Aaron? What’s your goal? Where does this end for you?”

It was such a huge thing already; why did there need to be a next? But of course there was, outside his little cave. Because there were still the enclavers to make into proper allies, and the grievances the salters had after years fighting a war the Wasting King had started for them, and the dragons doppels—both the humans who hadn’t wanted it, and the new-hatched children who’d come expecting the pact their egg memories promised them and found treachery instead. And when all those were somehow smoothed over, there would be the next thing, and the next.

“What end?” Aaron asked.

And she smiled, like that was the right answer. And she waited.

“The Continent,” Aaron realized. “You’re talking about the continent. You really want to fight them? You really think we can win?”

“Now those,” she said, “are entirely separate questions. More importantly: is there anything to gain from avoiding the fight?”

No. Only humanity’s gradual extinction, if the population trends he’d spent all summer reading with Rose and Connor continued.

“Now,” she said, “Are you going to keep trying to kill me, or shall we work together?” And she offered out her hand, like it was really as simple as shaking.

“That rather depends,” Aaron said. “Are you going to try to kill me again? I doubt I have any more convenient brothers for you to knife in the back in my place.”

“What would I gain by killing you now?” she asked.

And he understood, finally, that it wasn’t a question; it was her answer. It was why her king was dead, her husband in prison, and the fox’s tongue cut out and eaten. Why ordering him knifed in an alleyway was just an afterthought to her; a little light pruning of the family tree, of a branch she’d grown tired of seeing. What would I gain by killing you now: that was the question she was always asking, of everyone.

He could understand that.

“You weren’t particularly close to Markus, were you,” said Aaron, because what else was there to say, when offing the wrong one of them mattered so little to her either way. What did she gain, indeed.

“I hated the bastard, until I didn’t. But apparently most of that was you. You’re getting along well with your sister, I see.” She quirked a brow, and gave a glance to the dull practice sword dutifully strapped to his side.

“She wants me to visit the south,” Aaron said.

“It will be good for you, to cultivate connections there in your own name.”

“I don’t know that I like how big the world is outside of my cave,” admitted Aaron.

She laughed, softly. And kept offering out that hand. “It’s rather too late to go back. But you can bring your friends out with you, if you wish.”

Aaron shook, because what did he gain by not. It wasn’t as if she wouldn’t try to kill him again; she’d as good as promised she would, if it would further her plans. But he was starting to be worth something alive. And it was interesting, trusting someone, and seeing what happened.

She let go of his hand and picked up her cup again. “I do wish that you’d been the one brought home. Markus could have had the cave, and you could have been underfoot in Three Havens. I might have stayed. I may even have even called you son.”

Well that was an uncomfortable sort of truth. Even more uncomfortable, that he could almost picture it himself. Almost want it. She’d likely have done a better job than the man.

She coughed. Took another drink from her cup, rather more of a gulp than a sip; kept coughing. His own throat felt dry just watching her. Drier still, as she looked at his little handkerchief, and the matching pastries on her own plate. She pressed a hand against her throat. The other groped under the table; she pulled out the round stone from its hiding place, and swallowed it with the last of her tea. It seemed to scrape on its way down, judging by how her coughing only grew worse.

Aaron didn’t know how long it took a bezoar to work. But apparently the Lady did, because she looked up at him, and smiled with all her teeth.

“You clever little rat. I should have— You had that kitchen boy of yours do it, didn’t you?”

Aaron hadn’t. But that would not necessarily have stopped John, particularly with his people free, and him about to leave the castle to join them.

Her hair color was shifting. It was a subtle thing; her grays strands were clearing, replaced by darker strands of red in her enclave blonde. She didn’t have half so many lines on her face, few as they’d been already. Her real eyes weren’t blue: they were a dark amber. Her pupils were slit, her teeth sharp, and her tails prominent.

Doppels couldn’t hide the changes that came with shifting back and forth over time. But illusions certainly could, and fox women were notorious for those.

She had three tails. The kaibyou’s information was out of date. Though he doubted she went out much, in her furs.

The Lady was on her feet now. So was he. She was grinning. He had his knives out, which was much the same thing.

“Was it the king,” he asked, nodding to that third tail, “or your father?”

“My sister’s father, to be precise,” she said. So she was the human half of that doppel pair. “I forgave Liam years ago, more’s the pity. But I never quite got over being dragged to a den to be eaten. It was formative, as childhood experiences go.”

Her words and breaths came out in breathy wheezes. It didn’t affect the readiness of her stance.

“I’ve got the real bezoar,” Aaron said.

“I gathered.”

“I could…” He could. But even as he said it, he wasn’t sure he would. His own throat still felt dry. On his handkerchief sat his stolen pastries, with only the one eaten. To be fair, John hadn’t wanted to give them to him. They were, after all, a special order. The last thing the enclave’s spy was cooking before he left.

She barked laughter, rather literally. “You expect me to eat from your hand? After this? I’m not so tame.”

Poison could force a shift, if the doppel’s other body was the stronger. They’d poisoned Orin slowly, over the course of nine days, to give him a chance to survive if he’d no dragon body to retreat to. Johnathan Baker—Jahnalistrin—had no such concerns for the Lady’s continued health. He rather suspected the boy had gone for overkill, given how quickly Aaron’s own throat seemed to be closing. The boy always did have a heavy hand with his favorite ingredients.

As Aaron shoved the real bezoar into his own mouth, the Lady slipped from human to full fox with the ease of any experienced doppelgänger. Her fur shimmered where it caught the sun, a shade of red so blended with her natural blonde that it had turned a fiery gold. Her tails were as white tipped as her father’s. She was larger than a simple one-tail, if not by much. Those teeth of hers were certainly large enough to tear out a throat.

Aaron’s breaths were already evening out. Hers weren’t. There was froth at the sides of her mouth. Then she was darting for the open balcony doors, her paws hitting the rail next to where her Death sat looking out. The Lady launched herself over the side even as Aaron ran out after her. He had one last glimpse of her tail tips, before all he could see was three white doves, flying down low to the courtyard before each broke off for a different direction. At least she was feeling well enough to put up an illusion again. If that was a good thing.

He needed to think, but all he could do was stand there stupidly trying to track each dove with his eyes as the stone rail dug into his palms. Had anyone else seen her? He looked to the wall, to the gatehouse bell tower, where—

Where someone was lowering down a redcoat, nice and quiet and out of sight. They paused for a glance around, just like he was doing, and Aaron recognized the dragon doppel he’d spoken with outside the enclave. She still didn’t act as if she recognized him, even when her gaze locked on his.

There might be another reason for that, besides her playing dumb.

He couldn’t see her eyes narrow from here. Only the way she stilled. Aaron didn’t make the same mistake; he let his eyes keep moving, and his head too, then gave the sort of frown a man gives when he’s not found what he was searching for. He ignored the Lady’s Death still swinging her heels over the railing.

“She’d have eaten the whole tray of those things herself, if you’d not been around to steal some off. And make her talk while she chewed,” the Death said. “She’d have had her bezoar without you, of course, but your little friend in the kitchen has a liberal hand with more than just sugar. I’m reasonably certain that his idea of poisoning starts with how much would kill a griffin, and he scaled up from there.”

“I mean no offense,” Aaron said, “but do you have anything important to say? Something just came up; you might have noticed.”

The Death laughed. “No, no, don’t let me stop you. They’re right; you’re making this far more interesting.”

Aaron resisted the urge to edge away from the window, or check whether he was still being watched. He just turned, like a man who’d not seen a thing he shouldn’t, and walked back inside. Closed the balcony up behind him. Then he checked his knives, and ran for the door.

There was a guard down the hall. Not someone he recognized. But there was someone else, too, just backing out of another room, a basket in her arms. Aaron fixed on his smile, nodded to the guard, and dashed to catch up with the woman.

“Mrs. Summers,” he said, taking the basket, “lovely to see you.”

“Don’t bother with buttering me, boy,” the housekeeper said. Though she let him do her carrying, all the same. “What do you want?”

“Yes, well.” He leaned in close, all conspiratorial-like, tracking the guard with his eyes until the man rounded the corner. “We’ve at least one dragon at the castle. The main bell tower’s been taken. Seems they’re trying for quiet, but at least one of them suspects I saw. Get someone you trust—someone you really trust—running for a town bell. I doubt things will go pretty, once the time for quiet is done.”

There was barely a hitch in her step. Easy enough to write off as her usual limp, if anyone were watching. “Always making me work,” she grumbled. She met his eyes; gave the slightest of nods. Then she kept moving, perhaps a little faster than she usually bothered to go. But she was a busy woman, after all.

Aaron ditched the basket outside a room, where a servant might have left it for just a moment, and made for the stairs down. Rose was in the council chamber, with his sister and Lochlann and Orin—

Rose was arguably among the most competent party in the entire castle. Connor was alone in his rooms at the top of the royal tower, reading the letters Aaron had brought, as far from a safe escape as he could get without literally sitting on the roof.

…He might literally be sitting on the roof. He liked the spot well enough. Rose would never forgive Aaron if her brother got killed because of a choice he’d made. He found the nearest entrance into the old ways, and raced up.

The crown prince was in his rooms, thankfully. And Aaron appearing from the old ways too out of breath to speak was its own sort of warning.

“What’s wrong?” the boy was asking, even as he ran over. Aaron pulled him in, and they gave the doorway its blood due with hasty handprints of blood; then he got them racing down again. He’d not bothered with a lamp. He didn’t need one, not for smooth walls and level stairs. Connor was slow enough that soon he was the one gasping, and Aaron had caught his breath enough to explain.

“Dragons in the castle. One’s who’ve doppeled already, so this isn’t about that.” He doubted that much they’d seen this spring had been about that. “Your brother and Rose are in the council chamber. We’ll get them—”

“Go,” Connor interrupted, breathless. “You’re faster—and who’s going to get me in here?”

“If we can’t wait for you,” Aaron said, “get to Twokins. There’s a blacksmith on third down; she looks out for kids.”

“Go,” the boy said, and Aaron had no way of seeing his expression, but his voice was sure enough.

Aaron left the prince there, in the dark.

The bells rang when he was halfway down. Two, two, wings in the blue. The sound was muffled through the walls. If there was active fighting yet, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t either feel or hear the familiar thump of ballistae, either. Which could have been the walls blocking it, or because no dragons were in the sky, but was more likely because taking the ballistae out would have been up there with silencing the bells in their priorities. And it wasn’t as if the castle had many to begin with: the only ones they had were those that Aaron and the Captain of the Guard had moved from storage in the Downs, after making sure the things even still worked. This place was the O’Shea’s pride, built after the pact with the dragons was well and truly established. Proof that humanity no longer need fear their own skies.

It had been a good few hundred years since then. A short-sighted arrangement.

He’d reached the ground floor. The council chamber was a newer addition to the castle: tacked on later than the rest, after the Letforget was let forgot. There were no old ways directly to there. He came out in the kitchens instead, and—and John was gone, of course he was, and the little poisoner had stolen Rose’s book—which was a stupid thing to be angry about, but it got Aaron ignoring the ache in his legs a little longer. He’d the deer cloak about his shoulders, but that wouldn’t have been much help on smooth castle floors with twitchy humans about. The militia was moving to general defensive positions, as far as Aaron could tell, but until Mrs. Summers got the word spread—or until the dragons truly tipped their hand—most would be looking for threats from the sky, not from the people standing next to them.

Aaron hit the doors to the council chamber. And, well. Bounced off. There was something extremely heavy holding them closed on the other side, and a hint of scales under the door, now that he was forced to take a step back to look. There were other entrances, but he didn’t honestly expect a different result. There were windows above the stands, big enough to climb through, because the design of this castle was terrible, but at least that was a way out if he and Rose could—

If she could climb down a wall. Which he could, but she couldn’t, not at any speed. Why had he wasted so much time teaching her about knives, when he could have been teaching her to climb?

Those sounds of fighting Aaron hadn’t been able to hear in the old ways, or in the castle at large: they were here. Right beyond this door, and the dragon holding it closed. It didn’t take a genius to realize why dragons would strike while all the castle leadership was in one place. They’d tried to kill Orin in the north. His Majesty had been angry at Aaron for growing a whole forest in their way, because Orin had thought he’d had it handled, but the dragon’s leader was smart; they would have adapted their strategy soon enough. That’s what Aaron had argued.

They’d adapted, all right. And knives wouldn’t do Rose any good against dragons, which meant Aaron had never taught her a single useful thing.

He leaned his forehead against the door. Tried to steady his breath, or his hands, or his thoughts. Tried to think. There had to be something he could do—

Except there didn’t.

People died all the time. Kept right on trying to think themselves out of things, right up until they were too dead to. And there was only so much thinking Aaron could do without thinking how Rose was the least prepared fighter in that room. How that wouldn’t save any of the rest of them, either, because Aaron had seen everyone going in and not a one of them had come armed to fight dragons. His sister had stuck a sword through one once, but that was only because the dragon had done most of the work; humans had to be prepared to fight dragons, or it was no fight at all.

His sister. He had a sister. He was going to go south with her, visit her home, and he’d been planning on complaining about it a significant portion of the way but he’d still have gone. He’d had a sister, and maybe he still did, but he couldn’t even open a door.

He should… he should get Connor. Get him out, at least. And Mrs. Summers and the servants he’d worked with, and all the kitchen staff John had left behind. At least the enclave boy had gotten out, hopefully early enough to avoid whatever else came of this.

Aaron rammed his shoulder against the door. It didn’t do anyone any good, but he did it again, and again, and—

And with a sound like a cliff face shearing, the wall next to the council chamber doors wrenched open, and Rose shoved Lochlann through, leaving a red print on his back. She turned back to face her new doorway. In one hand, she held her ornate knife, with its fancy script from a book that had held no other words. Her other hand was bleeding freely from a palm slit open wide. The blood dripped onto the ground—too fast, it needed to be wrapped, needed pressure on it, needed a stitches and weeks to heal—

Her blood dripped on the ground. And flowed, in two wavering lines, over to the ragged edges of her new doorway, tracing out a crude remembering of the words around the doors to the old ways.

“Not. You,” she said, still facing into the council chambers. And when Orin tried to step through after her, the doorway itself repulsed him.

“I can just use the real doors,” the king said, amused.

“Go ahead then,” said Princess Rose. “Open them.”

Through the doorway was the tail of the dragon she’d crossed over, in making her door. And its head, just now coming down to peer at them. She was light gray as the stone of the council room, with highlights of white: kirin’s bone. She was copying the floor.

Aaron didn’t know for certain that the dragon was female. But he did know that the position of door guard had last been held by Jeshinkra, and he suddenly doubted she’d been moved.

The king stood easily with a dragon’s head watching over his shoulder. His new sword hung at his side, still sheathed. Behind him, the gray floor was spilling red, and most of those who’d started the spring calling for His Majesty’s blood wouldn’t be doing so again. The fight was still going on, too far to the side for Aaron to see, but there weren’t many outcomes from here.

A satisfying meeting, indeed.

Red was steadily creeping into Jeshinkra’s colors. There was a smear across His Majesty’s cheek, as well, much realer than hers. Aaron couldn’t see his sister.

“We need to get out,” he said, which was the point that everyone noticed him.

“Aaron,” Orin said. “It is Aaron isn’t, it? Not Markus? Forgive me; Jessie wasn’t sure.”

“Connor’s on his way to meet us. We need to go,” Aaron said. He kept his gaze on the king through Rose’s door, and tried very hard not to look at the real doors right next to the man, that Orin could have opened at any time. Though that would give all those still fighting a chance to run.

“Aaron,” the dragon wearing Orin’s face decided. “You want doppels to be citizens? Join me. You don’t need to run; if I’d wanted you dead, I’d have had you in here. I know this is rather crude, as proper introductions go, but you do have the most fascinating things to say. I’ll not hurt any who bend the knee to me. And I have it on good authority that you’re the sort of man I’d choose for my council.”

Aaron wished, very sincerely, that those words didn’t have any appeal. But whatever tug he might have felt from them was quickly forgotten by a rather physical tug from Rose, who was backing away from her door, and taking Aaron’s arm with her. Lochlann stepped next to them in a guarding position; then he thought better of things, and shoved his sword through the handles of the chamber’s real doors. Breaking out would be a short enough delay for a dragon, but more than trying to scratch their scales would buy.

“You’re not my king,” Aaron said. “You’re not even my Orin.”

“If which I am matters so much to you, then tell me: when did Jessie kill him? When did he step out, and I stepped back in? You don’t even know.”

Aaron really didn’t.

The man glanced to the real doors. Smiled, amused, at Lochlann’s little delaying tactic; then he waved them off, with a king’s graciousness. “Go evacuate, then. Get settled in. There will be time enough to talk later.”

Rose gave his arm another tug. Then they were running, him and Rose and Lochlann, and Orin couldn’t follow them through the door Rose had made.

He didn’t even try. He just turned back towards the fight inside, lowering his arms down as if to crouch; then he was bulging, growing, with the sort of grotesque unevenness common in those newly doppeled. His Majesty was a red dragon with gold highlights. And then his camouflage kicked in and bone white crept up his flanks, followed by a darker red.

Rose was faster than Connor had been. And had enough breath to shout, too.

“Dragons. Dragons in the castle. Everyone to the Downs, by order of…”

‘Your King’ would have been traditional.

“Your princess,” Lochlann finished where she faltered, and that was what they went with.

She opened the same path in the old ways she once had, to meet Aaron at the Wake for the Old Year: the one that ran from the castle through the outer wall, and opened to the street outside.

They needn’t have bothered. The main gates were open, too, and a dragon with yellow highlighting her stone-gray scales crouched above them. She watched them leave, as she watched everyone else brave enough to cross under her.

She made no move to stop them. Which was worse, far worse, than if she had. There was a plan here, and Aaron had no idea what it was, except that it didn’t matter to the dragon’s king whether they fled or not.

They waited for Connor. Stood rear guard in the road, until the last of the castle staff had passed them. But Connor had never explored the old ways in the same way his twin had, and probably didn’t know this exit, which meant he could be coming out anywhere. Rose shut her eyes. Took in a breath, and let it out. Then she followed her people down the Queen’s Stair, and he and Lochlann followed after her.

Into the Downs. Into Two Kings, or however many kings.

Aaron was home.