Only someone looking very closely would have noticed the chameleon Crasii standing against the elaborately detailed mural. The stylized hunting scene lined the west side of the Ladies Walking Room and ran the length of the vast Caelum Royal Palace's third floor. The room was a long narrow promenade, built to afford the ladies of the court a place to exercise during the long Caelish winters, when the palace was snowbound for months at a time. Fortunately it was summer now; otherwise Tiji would have risked hypothermia standing naked as she was, blending in with the mural so she could listen in on the conversations of those who chose this favourite concourse to discuss affairs of the court.
Tiji resisted the urge to scratch an itch on the side of her nose, falling into the unnatural stillness unique to her kind as the door opened at the end of the hall. As she'd hoped, the Queen of Caelum's guests had arrived. The Grand Duchess of Torfail and her children let themselves into the room, checked the door was firmly closed and then walked further along the hall until they were closer to where Tiji was, blending with the wall so completely she had ceased to exist as a separate entity.
"The queen has given us an answer," the grand duchess announced, as they approached.
"And?" her daughter prompted. Although she was dressed in a hooped gown similar to her mother's, made from heavily brocaded silk, even Tiji considered the daughter plain. She had pale eyes and dark hair braided in the elaborate fashion currently in favour in Caelum. Being completely hairless herself, Tiji often wondered how humans coped with all that grooming and washing and tying it out of the way every day, certain even a small amount of hair would have driven her mad.
"And she said yes," the duchess announced. She glanced at her son and smiled. "Looks like you're getting married, dear."
The young man was unfairly pretty, dark haired and perfectly formed, with eyes the colour of twilight framed by long dark lashes. He seemed to be about twenty or so, his beauty marred, however, by the scowl he wore. "Tides! Do I have to?"
"It's the quickest way to secure the throne." His mother shrugged.
"She's a wretched child, mother."
"That wretched child becomes queen as soon as she marries," his sister reminded him. "That makes you king if you're her husband, you know." She added the last bit, no doubt, to aggravate her sibling.
The young man seemed quite annoyed. "They'll expect me to sleep with her."
As they talked, the group neared Tiji. The sister smiled nastily. "Surely you're not objecting on moral grounds, Try?"
This was the closest Tiji had been able to get to the grand duchess and her family in the month since she'd been sent to infiltrate the Caelum Palace. It was rumours of their arrival that had brought Tiji to Caelum in the first place. Declan Hawkes had learned that after Glaeba's potentially disastrous refusal to unite their crown prince with Princess Nyah, the heir to the Caelish throne, another contender had appeared on the scene. Declan had wanted to know who it was, so Tiji was dispatched from Herino and sent north to discover the truth behind this new offer.
The truth was before her now. Tiji was glad of it, too. Caelum was a cold, miserable place and when she was using her chameleonic abilities, she couldn't wear clothes to protect her body from the elements. The sooner she learned what this lot of grasping foreigners were up to, the sooner she could head home.
"I'm objecting on the grounds that the Tide is on the turn and I don't see why we need to keep up this ridiculous charade."
Almost at the same time the young man spoke, Tiji's skin began to prickle. A feeling akin to nausea washed over her, threatening her concentration, and with it her camouflage. The trio drew closer, the danger with them. The sensation was sickening, and familiar, although she was a child when she'd felt it last. That was back in Senestra, before she'd met Declan Hawkes.
This feeling was the reason she worked for Declan Hawkes.
That this trio were not who they claimed was no surprise to Tiji. When Declan heard the Grand Duchess of Torfail had made an offer for her son to wed Princess Nyah, he'd been instantly suspicious, certain there was no such place as Torfail—in Caelum or anywhere else on Amyrantha—let alone a grand duchy attached to it. But Declan had been expecting at best some ambitious grifters, at worst agents of a neighbouring country trying to mess with the Caelish succession by providing a contender of their own.
He wouldn't be expecting three immortals seeking to take the throne of Glaeba's closest neighbour, any more than Tiji was.
Quashing the fear and nausea all Scards felt in the presence of the immortals, Tiji forced herself to concentrate.
"It's easier this way," the older woman was saying. "And faster. You marry the child, she takes the throne, you become king, then I can call the others back, and we're set for the next three hundred years. Why go to the effort of trying to achieve the same thing by force, when the only work you have to do is smile nicely and not terrify the little brat until after the wedding?"
"It's humiliating," her son complained. "I command the Tide, for pity's sake. I shouldn't have to work for anything."
"One whisper of the Tide returning and all of a sudden ordinary work is humiliating?" The plain young woman laughed. "Tides, Tryan, a century ago you were hiding out in Parve, pretending to be a cobbler."
Tryan? Tides, it's the Empress of the Five Realms!
Tiji forced her racing pulse to slow, afraid if she let her dread get the better of her, she'd let her camouflage drop, a mistake that might result in her instant annihilation. She had to remain a part of the wall for as long as this took. It was critical she survive to take this news back to Glaeba.
"I've no time for your bickering," Syrolee snapped, before Tryan could respond. "You'll both do what you have to, and that's an end to it. Have either of you had word from your brothers?"
Elyssa nodded, but she was smirking at Tryan. "A messenger arrived this morning while you and the queen were negotiating. Krydence has heard a rumour that Cayal might be in Glaeba."
Tryan rolled his eyes in disgust. "Tides, that's all we need."
"It's just a rumour, Tryan."
The young man eyed his sister speculatively. "One you'd like confirmed, I don't doubt."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Elyssa demanded.
"As if you didn't know."
"Tryan, leave your sister alone. Has there been no word from Rance or Engarhod?"
"Last I heard Rance was so far south he was almost in Jelidia," Tryan reminded them. "He could be anywhere. As for Engarhod, he's more likely to contact you than either one of us."
Syrolee nodded in agreement. "As soon as he gets word the wedding is going ahead, I'm sure he'll be here."
"But I'll be king," Tryan pointed out.
Syrolee's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, mother dear, I'll be King of Caelum. Not you. And certainly