Behind the Dragon's Veil
The East Wing
IT began in a secret hallway.
Nestled deep inside the restricted East Wing, far from the palace’s main hub, the hallway harbored a stretch of wooden panels, doors and magical fallacy. A walkway along which only one girl could traipse unhindered.
Few knew that light wouldn’t seep under its hundred doors. A hundred identical doors that would shift as if by magiya, a wonderful power only the Maginari possessed. Except it wasn’t magiya. The entire structure was fully mechanical. It had been designed by and constructed for a seventeen-year-old girl. She was the biggest secret of all, rumored to be concealed behind the only door that didn’t lead to a brick wall.
Restricted to the kitchens below, servants claimed to have glimpsed the shadows of the girl in its humming depths, slouching in a ballroom once fit for a king. She was a distorted figure far from human, the tales went. A tentacled monster with skin like jagged coral and multiple tongues with a taste for mortals. As the years went by, however, even the servants stopped marveling at the significance of her presence or why the royals kept such a secret. In the end, the East Wing and the girl simply existed. Unexamined, unbothered, like the teal trees in the courtyard.
This was precisely the reason the girl made it a point never to entertain the freakish rumors about her. Unpleasant talk that bred from fear and uncertainty. But despite her efforts, it affected her just the same.
“Skin like bobbing coral,” she would whisper. “What utter nonsense.”
And on this morning, she would have none of it. Her vest tightening around her armpits, the girl disassembled one of the many push buttons on her breastplate. She wouldn’t notice its inner coil rebounding in the corner of her vision. Colorblind as she was. Its green melted in with the assorted grays across her surrounding. Tools clattered as she dug through a drawer for a replacement.
She exhaled bitterly and gazed up at the light peeking through the murky domed skylight. The ballroom’s high arches reflected back into her goggles. Their metal-plated columns concealing inner hydraulics behind drapes speckled from age.
When the East Wing ballroom transforms into a giant hoversub, she thought, a real monstrosity fully equipped with state-of-the-art submersible technology, mind them, they would truly have gossip worth spreading.
Her chin met collarbone as she tightened the wires in her side pocket. The hieroglyph calculator, a headpiece of multiple rotating circlets, designed to generate sequence instructions that only she understood—the fabled monster’s crown—stayed in place despite the angle.
To some extent, they were right. She was an abomination. But it didn’t matter. While she emerged only during the queen’s discreet visits—on Old Souls’ day of each month, to be exact, for two hours of tea and feeble pleasantry—she was more than happy to vanish back into her mysterious den. There, she was free to play god to a monochrome city of mechanical creatures. In a workroom redolent of sawdust, drawing papers, metal, and (curiously) lilies.
The oscillating disks around her forehead marked the hour for dinner. Soon her meal would travel up a shaft on a metal platform, the closest any servants would come to touching anything belonging to her. She’d lost more weight over the course of the year. Despite the steaming aroma of freshly cooked, herbed poultry and vegetables, her vision deficiency made her food unpalatable.
She was in the middle of divesting herself of her bulky vest of gadgets and switches, unclasping the one controller on her belt that no longer served a purpose but of which she was just particularly fond, when she heard footsteps in the hallway.
For a moment, she couldn’t believe it. Turning her better ear toward the sound, she unbuckled her headpiece and let it slide into her hands. She checked the day-clock hovering near the ceiling in one corner. She’d never gotten around to fixing its broken ailerons, so it had inhabited that corner for months. Her chest gave a profound thump when she saw the date: the sixth day of the week, the thirtieth of January. A rest day: no training, no tutoring. Her most isolated day of the week.
She didn’t recognize the footsteps. It wasn’t Mariqeh Qin, the royal weapons master, or Sensa Kadir, her tutor, the only two people allowed inside the East Wing. Even they met her in the covered courtyard, never once setting foot in her secret hallway.
She knocked over a stray glass instrument. But at that moment, she was deaf to the sound of her shattered device. Someone else was out there.
Warded against magiya and physical infiltration by multiple enchantments, the East Wing was absolutely impenetrable. A fact she wished she could take full credit for. During her appeal to prevent her father from shipping her abroad (for protection from his obviously conjured threats), she had revealed a fully mechanical apartment plan designed to protect her. To her mother’s relief, her father had diplomatically agreed to its construction. The girl had nothing to do with the magiya wards, not being magiya-gifted. But the genius of the East Wing was all her.
The key to the East Wing hallway was the exact weight of the secret hidden within. In the wake of a foreign weight upon the black-and-white hallway tiles, the many doors and wall panels would shift. A door that had stood there before might not be seen again for another hundred relocations. Unless one shared the girl’s small and distinct light-footed frame. And the cumbersome vest she favored that particular week. It was fairly evident that none could pass through the secret hallway, and find the correct door to her secret workroom, but her.
Sepha, her childhood friend, had once tailed her painstakingly through the rotating hallways. He was found unconscious from exhaustion hours later. Just before the magiya wards could forcefully rebuff him, banishing him from Andrandria forever.
So when the knock came at her door that rainy afternoon, the girl stopped breathing. Her father must be right. She was truly unsafe. The fabled Hunter was finally here to kill her.
In between the thumps of her heart, the knock came again, this time more urgently. A low and scratchy voice came through the door.
“Vasha Milost,” it said, “Your Highness, are you there?”
Relief cascaded down her shoulders. She knew that voice. It was the high Maginari responsible for the intricate wards on the East Wing.
Thunder shook the murky chandeliers.
“It’s been years since I last heard your voice,” she said, careful to sound calm.
He was alone, no guard escorts, no battle mages. Not that an archmage needed an escort, but why was he here?
“As I you, Vasha Milost, though I’m afraid we lack the time to exchange pleasantries. I’ve come to escort you to the main palace.”
Again, a spasm of nerves trembled violently through her. It was 1902, a full decade since they’d shut her away here. The prospect of visiting the royal halls prompted an exhilarating yet unpleasant tug in her core. She’d never entered the main palace, not even on the king’s birthday. Something must truly be wrong.
“It’s loud in there,” he called. Instantly the room’s mechanical hum—the gears, the springs, the steam— sounds that had faded with time, enveloped her.
“I suppose I’d grown used to it. It keeps away the silence.” The deafening silence that amplified the sounds of her barbed thoughts.
It’s too late when the clocks stop and the metal sings.
“I’ll wait in the antechamber, Vasha Milost,” he said. “Pray you do not take long.”
She rushed to change into the only presentable clothes that still fit her. She found the archmage outside, letting the raindrops tickle his fingers and breathing in the fresh green scent of the storm. A color she could only imagine through its smell.
“Are the trees satisfied?” she asked, invariably desperate for some semblance of color, tone, life. Even outside, her sight remained black and gray and sour.
He didn’t respond, hurrying her silently through a long passageway toward the king’s private audience hall. They passed gradually from the blandness of her apartments to the warmth and extensive opulence and delicate crystal of the king’s quarters.
Murmuring aristocrats filled the outer chamber. They quieted with stunned, speculative expressions when she appeared with the archmage.
“What’s an artificer doing here?” they whispered. “Who is she?”
She hid her hands beneath her armpits, self-conscious of the grease under her jagged nails. Curious glares scrutinized the thin headscarf that veiled her nose and lips. They stared at her inappropriate and mismatched clothing: stained white overalls atop an ill-fitting red blouse, straps swaying slightly beside her hips.
Archmage Echemmon walked her toward the empty thrones. Her fingers grazed the smooth surface of the gilded chairs.
To her surprise, Musavir Asen, her father’s closest advisor, stepped up beside her and faced her toward the crowd. “Behold—Annarae Summer Aurora Valanya, the new queen of Andrandria.”
The girl’s pulse lurched. She searched the faces gathered before her. Convinced only by the series of gasps, the shuffling of silk and leather, and finally, the hair-raising applause that echoed through the hall.
She paled at the misfortune that had befallen the king and queen. Her parents, completely and absolutely gone. But it sank in ever so gently, like a revival.
She was finally free of the East Wing.
Blood rushed into her ears as she took in in the wave of bowed heads before her.
“The shield of Andrandria be hers,” they chanted. “Great may she reign.”