Roman didn’t waste any time. He stood, grabbing her wrist and pulled her out the patio of the apartment. He allotted her no time to grab for any items; she reached for nothing. Her street was long and dark and they moved in the shadows against the wall of a bakery. The base lay between them and the Nivah Gate and Misha had no idea how they would make it past.

            He led her through side streets until they reached a part of town she didn’t recognize. He ducked under a torn wire fence and took her through what seemed like a junkyard. He stopped in front of a large pile of metal. Finally releasing the hand he had been holding, he moved a rusted square of metal and revealed a small hole in the wall.

            It was a corner where two large sheets of metal met and one sheet was peeling back. Misha stared at it, wondering at the implications of a breach in their wall.

            “Were you expecting something more high tech?” Roman asked.

            Misha shook her head. “I don’t know what to expect anymore.”

            He held the piece of metal back and let her duck through. She leaned towards the gap, but pulled back. “Guards,” she remembered. There were always crews monitoring the gates.

            “Walk pressed against the wall,” he explained. “They never look directly down.”

            “How do we get across to the gate?”

            Roman simply smiled and urged her through the gap. They walked along the wall and when they reached the intersection of the gate, Roman gestured to stop. They waited in silence until the bells tolled in the city square. Then, Roman took her hand and they walked across the street.

            They reached the Nivah Gate and Roman stopped. Misha looked to the guard tower — empty. The tower guard changed at midnight. Roman’s knowledge of the inner workings of their military was unnerving.

            “There is something I haven’t told you,” Roman said.

            Misha tightened her forehead.

            “If you go through this gate,” he said, looking solemn, “you can’t come back.”

            Her eyes widened.

            “The choice you are making — it means forever.”

            Misha blinked at Roman, but she wasn’t surprised. She knew when she left her apartment, she could never come back. She was deserting her cause, she would become a traitor. Assassins would be trained to kill her and it would only be a matter of time until one of them did.

            When she replied, “I know,” it was calmly and honestly.

            Roman watched her for an extra beat, as if expecting her to change her mind. Then he smile radiantly and put her hand to his lips again.

            “There are approximately forty five more seconds until the guards appear and shoot me for being here,” he told her.

            “Then let’s go,” she replied. She reached for the gate latch, but he beat her to it. In a slow motion, the gates opened, creaking as they always had, but less ominously. Roman stepped inside and pulled her along with him. They began to walk through the Black Forest.

            Behind her, Misha heard the gates close.

            Trained as a soldier, her eyes were still scanning the foreground for predators. Roman seemed perfectly as ease, even when a band of fierce-looking goblins approached.

            The goblins were tall, sinewy, and had long, pointed teeth. Their skin had a bluish hue and they had no hair. They were also the Royal Guard of the Palace.

            Roman nodded to the group, but said nothing. As he and Misha continued to walk, the goblins followed at a reasonable distance.

            Other creatures appeared between the trees. Some Misha had fought against and some she had never seen before. They congregated along the path and stared with large glowing eyes that caught the light from the moon. Along the line, a mother held a child tightly and glared at Misha.

            She looked away. Watching forward, knowing Roman was looking at her, but unable to take her eyes of the city she approached. They walked along stone streets, around stone buildings, until the Palace rose before them.

            The crowd had thinned in the city, but Misha still saw curtains waving as they walked by and the occasional shopkeeper would stand outside his shop. Not one expression was kind.

            When they passed over the moat bridge, it was only her, Roman, and the goblins again.

            Misha had been inside the Palace only once before. It was a mission from long ago, before the truce, before Roman’s father had been killed. The group hadn’t deployed from the base intending to infiltrate the Palace  and kill the king, but complications had arisen and plans were changed.

            She remembered it as a very dark place. Everything was carved out of ebony, almost as if from a single stone. Roman opened the large door and swung it out. Inside the foyer, it was as Misha had remembered. The large domed ceiling was pure ebony, carved with depictions of a violent past, characters painted stark white. Roman walked past them without a glance. Misha remained a moment longer, almost waiting for the paintings to move. She walked quickly to catch up and Roman took her down several hallways, under arches, and through large doors. Misha followed until one sight made her stop.

            There was a large archway, ornate and broad, and through it stood a statue of a large bronze bull. When she stepped outside, Misha realized it was a courtyard. Streams of water spurted down the ivy-covered walls at even intervals and in the center, on a raised dais, was Minos.

            Roman caught her hand and his expression was serious. Misha looked around and realized how wrong it was for her to be there. She quickly stepped back inside.

            The legend of the Minotaur was no mystery. King Minos was credited with the creation of the hybrid, after sending a bull to punish his wife. The people of the Stone City worshiped Minos, depicting him as the bull in their art and altars.

            In Misha’s city, the soldiers found the tale of bestiality disgusting.

            Roman walked her to a corridor in silence. She had long since lost sight of the goblins; their camouflage inside the Palace was notorious. He stopped in front of a large door.

                                                            “This will be your room,” he said. “It’s been a long night and you should get some rest. Pleasant dreams, Kennedy.”

            “Good night,” she replied softly. Then he was gone.

            Misha stood in front of the door —herdoor — and surveyed the hallway. She knew the hall only looked empty. The goblins hid in the shadows or behind some dark magic. Soldiers told stories of goblins appearing out of thin air, their mouths dripping with blood, and possessing unnatural strength.

            Misha wasn’t sure if she felt safe with them protecting her. She thought of the crowds that had watched her walk across the city. If the goblins allowed a disgruntled soldier or countryman into her chamber, she wasn’t sure she would mind. Something about this place made her think it was no less than what she deserved.

            It was the memory of the mother’s eyes that finally propelled her to open the door. She had openly glared, daring the foreigner to stay in this land. Misha Kennedy could claim to be many things, but never a coward.

            Her room was as dark as the rest of the palace. The ebony walls gleamed with the starlight that fell in through the windows. The bed had four posts and a deep burgundy duvet. There was an armoire in the corner, as black as the walls, but featuring twisted handles and engraved drawers.

            Misha slipped out of her shoes and made her way to the east window. It was a thin slit, a tower window, and overlooked the Stone City.  From her position relative to the buildings below her, Misha knew exactly where she was inside the Palace. All her training told her to use that information to formulate an escape. She swallowed back those instincts. She didn’t need an escape plan — she wasn’t leaving.

            The floor was cold and it wasn’t long before she was shivering. She carefully pulled back the duvet and slid into bed. The events of the day weighed on her and it wasn’t long before she fell into dreams.

            It was still dark out when a sound awoke her. Misha’s eyes shot open and she searched the room for a threat. The darkness was impenetrable. She sat up and swung her feet over the edge of the bed, when she saw a shadow move beneath her. She stood up on the bed and grabbed a post, leaning over the end. Then a shadow shifted next to the armoire. Misha froze — how did it get over there? There was a heavy scampering and the moonlight was blocked for a moment. Leaping from the bed and running to the window, Misha looked out and saw something scaling the walls of the Palace. It turned back and large yellow eyes glowed in the night.

            When she left the room, she wasn’t sure where she was headed, only that she couldn’t stay there. Almost instantly, a goblin appeared next to her.

            “What’s wrong, madam?”

            Misha turned to the tall, blue man. He had large purple tattoos down both arms. She opened her mouth to speak, but realized she was breathing heavily and shaking.

            “Everything will be okay, madam,” he assured her. “What is troubling you?”

            “There - There was someone in my room.”

            The goblin narrowed his eyes. He took a dagger from his hip and turned into the room.

            Misha took a moment to catch her breath. “They aren’t there anymore. It left through the window.”

            The goblin looked annoyed. He crossed through the room and leaned out the east window, fitting half his thin torso outside. He yelled something to the creature in a language Misha couldn’t speak. He brought his head back inside and turned to her. He smiled without teeth.

            “It will all be alright, madam. He won’t bother you again.” The goblin moved to leave.

            “Wait,” she called. “What was that?”

            The goblin turned to her. “That was a poltergeist.”

            Misha blinked.

            “Master Roman didn’t mention poltergeists?”

            She shook her head. Misha had never heard of poltergeists.

            The goblin shook his head as well. “They plague the entire palace. There is no way to control them. Master Roman should have said something.”

            Misha nodded.

            “Will the madam be alright here tonight? Or shall I fetch Master —”

            “No,” Misha interrupted. “I’ll be fine.”

            The goblin nodded. “My name is Dag,” he said. “If another one returns or you need anything, please call.” He smiled again. “I’ll hear you.”

            Misha smiled back. “Thank you.”

            Dag left, but Misha couldn’t fall asleep again. When the sun came up, she opened the armoire and found a simple white, linen dress and stuck her head out of the room again. Dag didn’t meet her and she walked through the halls and down the stairs until she found a bright garden under one of the arches. There were large, exotic birds on the branches of the trees. Misha had only sat down on one of the benches when Roman appeared in front of her.

            “I heard you had quite a night,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you about the poltergeists.”        

            “It’s alright,” Misha said with a small smile.

            “No,” he replied. “It’s not.” He paused for a while. “Dag said you were very upset.”

            “Dag is exaggerating.”

            Roman made a face that said Dag did not exaggerate.

            “I’m not used to this,” Misha explained with a sigh. “Any of this.”

            “And so, today, we learn.” Roman took her hand and lifted her off the bench. He led her down the hallways towards the city again. He explained shops they walked past and the people who ran them. He spoke of the festivals the city hosted in the summer and the balls in the winter.

            Everywhere they went, the city people watched Misha closely. They followed her with their eyes, but made no comment on her presence. In the city streets, the goblins were prevalent and threatening.

            When the sunlight faded again, Misha found herself in another garden in the Palace. Her arm was linked with Roman’s and he led her through the foliage.

            “What do you think of the city?”

            “I like it,” she said with a nod.

            He looked at her sidelong. “Are you still uncertain?”

            “It’s getting better.”

            “Kennedy —”

            “You can call me Misha, if you’d like.”

            Roman faltered. “Your name is Kennedy. Everyone calls you Kennedy.”

            She smiled. “Kennedy is my last name. My first name is Misha.”

            Roman closed his eyes and exhaled. “So I’ve been calling you —”

            “It’s alright. It’s like you said, everyone does it. I just thought that you might want to know.”

            “I do.” He still looked very guilty.

            “What’s wrong?”

            Roman sighed and pulled his hand through his hair. “In our culture, referring to someone by their last name is exceedingly rude.”

            “Well,” Misha said, simply, “inmyculture, it’s not.”

            Roman shook his head again. “Misha,” he repeated

            She nodded.

            He smiled, somewhat wistfully. “You know that ‘misha’ is Elfish for ‘doll?’” Roman asked, offering his arm again.

            “No, I didn’t,” she said with a laugh, taking his arm.

            They walked back to her room. “I’m very sorry there isn’t much for a wardrobe in your room,” Roman began. “I couldn’t have anything made before. I’ve had some seamstresses working today to make some suitable pieces —”

            “That’s really not necessary,” Misha interjected.

            “Actually, I think they enjoyed it. They get tired of making men’s apparel.”

            Misha laughed softly. She turned towards her door, but looked back before she reached for the handle. “What did you mean, ‘you couldn’t have anything made before?’”

            Roman looked out a window before answering. “I wasn’t sure if you’d come.” He almost took a step forward, but turned instead and walked in, what Misha assumed must be, the direction of his room.

            When Misha turned back towards her door, Dag stood there.

            “Madam Misha,” he greeted. “Master Roman would like to assure you the grounds are being guarded and you should not expect another nocturnal visitor.”

            “Thank you, Dag,” Misha said.

            The goblin bowed and pulled the door open for her.

            Misha slept soundly her second night in the Stone City.

            The next day, Roman was detained with some business matters and Misha walked through the halls of the Palace alone. She found the kitchen, the maid’s housing, the goblin’s armory, and the formal ballroom. There was an older wing of the Palace, connected to the main building by a thin path. Misha walked along it and spent the afternoon exploring the historic buildings. She was walking down a long hallway when the king found her. There was dark stairway off to one side of the hall, with brick walls that careened down into the depths. Misha hadn’t taken two steps towards it before Roman stepped in front of her. He shook his head.

            Misha went up on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. He caught both of hers and turned her back in the direction he came from. He ignored the pathway and took her through a meadow to return to the main building.

            “What is down there?”

            He shook his head. “Nothing for you.”

            Misha wanted to ask more, but didn’t feel comfortable enough in this new place to impose herself upon its king. Roman seemed to sense her mood and paused to pick several flowers. He tied a long string of grass around the stems and presented them to her.

            “Thank you,” she said quietly, putting them to her face.

The End

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