The clock struck twelve. Lilya Diallo listened to the bells chime, counting the seconds between each one. One, two, three, ring. One, two, three. She loved the bells. When she heard them, she could imagine the fireplace she and her sister gathered around in their childhood. The blistering cold under the tent. Huddling under blankets with what little clothing they had. And telling stories.
Her sister loved to tell stories, she remembered. Stories crafted with the delicate artistry of a weaver, each thread a sentence and each sentence a world in which magic lived, thrived, and flourished. Places where their kind roamed free without fear. Where people danced upon staircases of water, walked cinder roads and their every breath spoke of life.
In Koel, things were different. They lived in the outskirts before, in the slums that evaded the clergy’s watchful eye. But further inland, things changed— structures sprung out of the permafrost like trees, pointing their jagged edges towards the sky, as if threatening it to never fall apart. They seemed to lean forward, over her when she walked the streets. It reminded her of how the clergy looked when she was small— tall men, pale as death, dressed in long black robes.
She hated Koel with all her heart. She hated the footsteps of soldiers, the sound of cavalry making their rounds. The silence. The occasional cry. She hated the ground on which their king walked, each step damning the dirt beneath it. And oh, how she hated the king.
“Lilya,” said the king. “The towels, for god’s sake?”
She bowed her head. “Forgive me, my lord. I will fetch them immediately.”
She left the room, heart drumming quietly in her chest. They prepared for this day extensively. Working her up the ranks through a series of strings pulled taut. And how little the king knew how few allies he truly had— the entire council had their eyes on her and she knew they were waiting. They waited years for this. Decades. Far too long.
In the service room, they were already prepared. Another maid nodded to her in greeting, leaning in close as Lilya entered. “It’s between the folds. You’ll feel it,” she whispered. Lilya nodded. She ran her fingers underneath the first towel, running the scenario through her head. He could retaliate. She was agile, but not strong— and the king could easily overpower her. She imagined straddling his corpse, panting, with blood spattered on her dress and on the pearlescent tiles. It would be a death sentence regardless. She didn’t care.
She was ready.
She held her breath as she walked down the halls, back to the baths where the king reclined against the edge of the pool. The room was hot; moisture hit her face as she opened the door, the smell of salts and lavender flowing around her. She took off her shoes, stepping into the shallow layer of water that washed the floor, then walked towards the king. Slowly. Deliberately. Her hands trembled, one holding the towels, the other hidden— tucked between them.
The king opened one eye, glancing at her before closing it again. “You look pale, Lilya.”
“Felt a bit faint earlier, m'lord. I promise you it is nothing to worry about.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Now, please, would you?” He rolled his shoulders, groaning. “Here.”
She pulled her maid stool over, placing the towels in her lap as she sat behind the king. With a gentle touch, she caressed his neck, let her hand slide down to his neck, then shoulders. She kneaded the muscle there, tightly knotted, and felt the tension melt slowly. The king relaxed, closing his eyes once again.
And oh so quietly, Lilya drew her knife. There was no struggle. The king choked. Lilya pushed his head down into the water.
Blood blossomed underneath the king’s body. She dropped her knife and stood. Stepped back. And ran.