The royal guard read the letter a third time, squinting through the eyepiece of an adderstone. Theodore waited while the knight took his time comparing his identification against other lists and forms. It was difficult not to think about how little time it would take for the situation in the Fairy Circle to erupt into chaos.
“I can’t let you into the castle,” the guard said. He folded the documents and handed them back.
“And why not?” Theodore tried to keep his composure but wrinkled the letter by mistake. He held the seal up to the guard’s face, as if he hadn’t already seen it. “This is an official request from Governor Farbend that I be granted an audience with the king!”
The guard folded his arms, and the men on either side of him squared their shoulders. “I don’t care who wrote the letter. Knight Detective Whitechain has you listed as a security risk.”
Theodore silently cursed Conrad for his thorough and admirable dedication to proper procedure. “This is important! Please! Can you at least tell the King I need to speak with him?”
“I’ll give you a choice,” the knight said. “Either get lost, or I’ll have you detained for suspicious activity.”
Smoothing the wrinkles out of his documents, Theodore turned and strode off in a huff. His march back down Crown Hill Road slowed to a trudge. Officials in burgundy pushed past him on business as he made his way back into the city. There, under the shadow of the castle where the street plunged, he found Oboe. She sat where he’d left her, on the patio of an old brick café, waiting for the world to end.
“It didn’t work.” The defeat in her voice was too much to bear.
“The governor’s best wasn’t good enough,” Theodore said, slouching into the seat beside her. “They won’t let me see the king.”
“What about Percy?” She said. “Percy would help us!”
Theodore rubbed his face, frustrated. “I can’t even get in the door!” He let his glasses fall back onto his nose. The suggestion sent his mind working. He glanced back up at the palace, with its towers rising high over the city. Maybe he didn’t have to use the door. “I have an idea.”
Oboe gulped down the last of her hot cocoa so they could leave. He brought her into a secluded alleyway, where he explained what he had in mind.
“I don’t like this,” she said while Theodore undid his shirt buttons.
“If Bassoon was able to get one of her whispers inside the castle, it might still be possible.” He hoped the royal guard had the good sense to tighten security, while also hoping they did not. “I don’t think the king will help us unless we go through the proper channels, but Perceval might. We just need to get close enough to at least talk to him.”
“I’m not going to transform you again!” Oboe said. She leaned in, dropping to a hush. “My magic is wrong. It’s against the law.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your magic! The law is there to prevent its abuse, but maybe the law isn’t perfect.” Theodore hesitated with taking off his pants. She’d seen him before, but he still blushed at the intimacy of it. “I trust you. You’d never use your magic to hurt anyone. Right now, it’s one of the only options we have. It’ll just be for a little bit.”
He folded his clothes and tucked them away behind a crate. Oboe stared at him, eyes trembling. Her gazed darted across him. She stepped closer.
“I… Okay.” She placed her hands on the scar on his chest. Her touch sent his heart racing. “Thank you,” she said. “For trusting me.”
He shook his head, feeling distracted. “I need to be something small. Something that can go unnoticed.”
She nodded, and the magic flowed out of her. He felt himself shrink down to the cobblestone. Six legs and antennae. There was even a little copper band around the foreleg that had been his ring hand. He was an ant again.
After unwrapping her bandages, Oboe shifted into a blue bird. She hopped close and he climbed onto her back. Theodore gripped her feathers tight as she rose into the sky to circle the tower.
“Get us closer!” Theodore said, having to shout over the wind. “So we can see in the windows!”
“Hold on!” She swooped to get near, but something happened. There was a spark of light and a translucent barrier of magic could be seen for half a moment. Oboe bounced off, tumbling through the air. Theodore clung to keep from falling until she righted herself.
“Too close!” She said.
Theodore saw now the glyphs and wards along the walls, set up to prevent intrusion. Oboe tried to keep them near enough to scout, and only got knocked back one more time.
“There he is!” Theodore said, spotting Perceval through a window.
She lighted on a buttress near that window, and he scuttled off her back. The wards would not be perfect. If Theodore kept his distance, he could creep between the range of each and hopefully make it. If he misjudged this, the spell would activate and fling him to his death.
“If I fall,” he said, wanting very badly for that not to happen, “I need you to catch me.”
“I won’t let you get hurt,” she said.
Theodore crept onto the wall, his tiny claws sticking to the stone. He set his eyes on the prince’s room high up in the tower, and tried not to look down.