In the forest, she knew, her family was waiting for her. Maybe Chicory would be the next queen. The people of the Hooflands would have to decide how queens were chosen, now that they got to do it for themselves again. Maybe there was a record somewhere in the castle, some old ritual or line of succession for the people of the Hooflands to follow. Or maybe they’d decide not to have a monarch at all. The old man couldn’t have done much to rule them on a day-to-day basis, not while keeping his terrible secret safe. They could set the prices of their goods themselves, and not burn anyone’s fields.
At the end of the hall, Regan found another human-scaled flight of stairs, descending down along a well-lit hall lined with burning torches. Someone must have lit them. The man behind her wouldn’t have had the strength. So she slung her bow back over her shoulder, squared her shoulders, and began her descent.
The stairs seemed to go on for the better part of forever, or maybe it just felt that way because she’d made so much of her climb in the dark, and was so tired now. Just as she thought she could go no farther, she heard voices ahead of her, raised in argument. She found the strength to walk faster, and reached the bottom of the stairs, whipping around the corner to see a faun, a silene, and a minotaur facing each other. The faun was holding a rope, the end of which was tied around the neck of a familiar-looking kelpie. Gristle’s head was bowed, eyes on the floor. None of them were looking at Regan, whose bare feet were silent against the stone floor.
“—lurking around the castle wall,” said the silene. His voice was familiar. He had no pies to offer, but Regan remembered him all the same. Her stomach soured as she realized who the minotaur must be. “There was a peryton as well, but the filthy thing flew away. We have to tell the Queen!”
So even the old human’s servants thought he was Queen Kagami? That fit with what he’d said about how none of them were ever allowed to look upon the Queen’s majesty, but it still seemed odd to Regan that none of them would ever have demanded to see the Queen. Or maybe not. The old man had spoken of a curtain that sustained his pretty lie. There had been at least two humans secretly in control of the Hooflands. Maybe there had been more. Maybe this was how things had been since the beginning, with people falling through doors and believing they knew better than the people who were already there, all because they thought humans were the best possible thing to be. Maybe no one had ever seen a king or queen once they took their throne.
Regan cleared her throat.
Gristle raised his head as the three servants of the imaginary queen whipped around to stare at her. “It’s the human,” said the silene she recognized, in a faintly baffled tone. “How did the human get in here?”
“Queen Kagami is dead,” said Regan. It was true enough, even if it wasn’t the entire truth. “Let my companion go.”
The silene dropped the rope. Gristle trotted over to Regan, stopping close enough that she could feel the heat coming off his hide.
“Good girl,” he said approvingly. “Have you saved us all?”
“Maybe,” said Regan, gently untying the rope from around Gristle’s neck. Hands were useful things, from time to time. “I don’t know. I think you’re going to have to do some of the work to save yourselves this time.” She kept looking calmly at the three servants of the Queen. “Well?” she asked. “Aren’t you going to arrest me?”
“No,” said the minotaur, and bowed. “She ordered us to do things in her name that the Hooflands may never forgive us for. She reigned too long, and became no fit queen. We should not have waited for a human to save us.”
“I think you’re right,” said Regan. “And I think all people in the Hooflands should have the same rights and respect, no matter who or what they are. Humans and kelpies, centaurs and perytons, it doesn’t matter. We’re all people here. We all get to have the same chance to save the world.”
She placed her hand on the side of Gristle’s neck. His mane was still wet, as kelpies’ manes always were. He flicked an ear and drew back his lips, showing her his carnivore’s teeth.
“I swore to eat you when your task was finished,” he said. “If you’ve saved us, we have no more need for a human.”
“You never needed a human,” she said. “We were only ever something you wanted, whether or not we were supposed to be here. I don’t think you need me now, but I want to go home. I don’t want to be eaten.”
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