“Oh.” I fidgeted with my wedding ring and lowered my eyes again.
“I’m starting to think he might not be quite as bad as I thought he was,” Finn said, almost grudgingly. “But you still spend too much time with him. You have to be careful about appearances.”
“I know.” My mouth suddenly felt very dry. “I’m working on it.”
Finn stood on the other side of the desk, as if waiting for me to say something, but I had nothing to say. I stared down at the book, almost too nervous to breathe.
“I just came to see how the trip went,” Finn said.
“It went well,” I said quickly, nearly cutting him off.
A few minutes later he left, and I let out a shaky breath.
I buried myself in the books, although it didn’t do much good. I couldn’t find anything. I’d tear apart the entire library if I had to, but I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
It was getting late when Willa knocked on the open door.
“Wendy, I know you’re really busy, but you need to come see this,” Willa said. “The whole palace is talking.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Elora’s new painting.” Willa pursed her lips. “It shows everyone dead.”
Elora had the “gift” of precognitive painting, although she’d be the first to tell anyone it was more of a curse. She would paint one scene from the future, from an event yet to happen, and that was it.
Since she’d been so weak lately, she’d hardly painted anything. It drained her too much, but if Elora had a powerful vision, she couldn’t hold it in. The precognition caused her terrible migraines until she painted them and got them out.
Also, Elora tried to keep her paintings as private as possible, unless she thought they had some value that everyone should see. And this one definitely did.
The painting sat on an easel at one end of the War Room. Elora had tried to keep the gathering small, so only the people who needed to know would see it, but as Willa said, word of the painting was spreading through the palace like wild fire.
Garrett stood by the door, keeping the riffraff from sneaking a peak. When Willa and I entered, Marksinna Laurent, Thomas, Tove, and Aurora were gathered around it. A few others were sitting at the table, too stunned to say anything.
I pushed Laurent to the side so I could I get a good look, and Tove stepped back. The painting was even more horrifying than Willa had explained.
Elora painted so well it looked like a photograph. Everything was done in exquisite detail. It showed the rotunda, its curved stairwell collapsed in the middle. The chandelier that normally hung in the center had crashed and lay destroyed on the floor. A small fire burned at the top of the stairs, and gold detailing was coming off the walls.
Bodies were everywhere. Some of them I didn’t recognize, but others were startlingly clear. Willa was hanging off the destroyed stairs, her head twisted at an angle that she couldn’t survive. Duncan was below the chandelier, broken glass stuck all over him. Tove lay in a pool of blood spilling out from him. Finn was crumpled in a mess of broken stairs, his bones sticking through his skin. Loki had a sword run straight through his chest, pinning him to the wall like an insect in an entomologist’s display box.
I lay dead at a man’s feet. A broken crown lay smashed near my head. I died after I’d been crowned. I was Queen.
In the painting, his back was to the viewer, but his long dark hair and black velvet jacket were unmistakable – it was Oren, my father. He had come to the palace and caused all this carnage. He killed countless people, at least twenty or more bodies littered the scene Elora had painted, and he had killed me.
We were all dead.
“When did you paint this?” I asked Elora when I found the strength to speak.
She sat in a chair to the side of the room, staring out the window at the snow falling on the pines. Her hands were folded in her lap, the skin gray and wrinkled. She was dying, and this painting had probably nearly pushed her over the edge.
“Last night, while you were gone,” Elora said. “I wasn’t sure if I should tell anyone. I didn’t want to start an unnecessary panic, but Garrett thought that you all should know.”
“It might help change things,” Garrett said, and I glanced back over at him. Worry tightened his expression. That was his daughter dead in the picture too.
“How can you change things?” Laurent asked, her voice shrill. “It is the future!”
“You can’t prevent the future,” Tove said. “But you can alter it.” He turned to me for confirmation. “Can’t you?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “That’s what Elora told me. She said the future is fluid, and just because she paints something, it doesn’t mean it will happen.”
“But it might happen,” Aurora said. “The course we are on now is set up so that this will be our future. That the King of the Vittra will destroy the palace and take over Förening.”
“We don’t know that he’ll take over Förening,” Willa said, futilely attempting to help. “We only see that some of us are dead.”
“That is a great consolation, Marksinna,” Laurent said snidely, and Tove shot her a look.
“Aurora has something,” I said. “All we have to do is change the course.”
“How can we possibly know that we’re changing the course the right way?” Laurent asked. “Maybe whatever action we take to prevent this scene is the action we needed to do to cause it.”
“We can’t do nothing.” I stepped back from the painting. I didn’t want to see everyone I loved dead anymore.
I leaned back against the table and ran my hands through my hair. I had to think of something to stop this. Something to change it. I couldn’t let this happen.
“We have to take out an element,” I said, thinking aloud. “We have to change something in the painting. Make something in it go away. Then we’ll know we’ve changed it.”
“Like what?” Willa asked. “You mean like the staircase?”
“I can go get rid of that right now,” Tove offered.
“We need the staircase,” Aurora said. “It’s the only way to the second floor.”
“What we don’t need is the Princess,” Laurent muttered under her breath.
“Marksinna, I told you that if you said –” Tove started but I stopped him.
“Wait.” I stood up straighter. “She’s right.”