A folded sheet of paper lay on Matty’s pillow. Iris cursed and kicked off the covers. She didn’t bother reading the note. She knew what it would say. I’m sorry. I love you. Someone has to do it. Fearing she had lost him again, this time forever maybe, she pulled on the clothes nearest to her—his shirt and boxers—and tore barefoot through the hallways of his building.
The contractors’ campus was a blur as she raced through errant sprinklers. Wet concrete. Sharp breeze. Her teeth clenched tight to hold the chill out and tears in, but it was only reflex. Her thoughts and prayers were a half-mile up The Hill.
Passing a pair of open gates, she cut across the August Garden’s lawn. Her leg muscles burned. Her breath caught in her chest. She thought about giving up because it was already too late. Instead, she pushed herself harder towards the garden’s exit and the road beyond.
Crowds gathered. Fingers pointed. Disembodied voices asked what she was doing. Iris didn’t have the time for their nonsense. She flew past them all.
At the corner of the palace’s delivery drive, a sharp pain in her side forced her to stop. She pressed on the spot as hard as she could with the heel of her palm. Damn you, Matty. She hated running. After forcing a deep breath, she skipped into a jog.
Three gray Kitsune stood guard outside the doors of the palace’s main service entrance. The contractors on duty were wearing white, same as the shirt Iris was wearing. She slowed to a walk and pulled her tangled hair over her shoulder. Fixing her gaze straight ahead, she slipped into the middle of a group of housekeepers returning from a trash dump.
Iris kept the Kitsune in the corners of her vision, looking for hints they had noticed her. She thought she caught one’s eye, but he continued to pan the crowd. Passing him, she felt very uneasy. She shook off the suspicion that he saw her and let her go, then crossed entered the doorway into the rear maintenance corridor.
It didn’t matter how much planning went into the king’s parties. Behind the scenes, they were always organized chaos. Just inside the door, there were a hundred people it seemed, some coming, some going, all walking quickly and with a purpose. Beyond them were the double doors that led into the Grand Corridor.
Iris dove into the crowd. She shoved past a woman with a mop, and then ran into the back of a man with a fire extinguisher. Each push earned her a scolding. Voices all around her spoke her name, until it was the one word that could be made out above the din.
She didn’t apologize or even acknowledge any of them. She just wished they’d take the hint and get out of her way.
Finally, Iris reached the doors and jerked them open.
Faces wearing glittered and feathered masks turned toward the open doors. Iris froze in place, momentarily halted by the scorn she saw in their eyes. She broke free of her stupor and darted into the middle of them, ignoring the startled gasps of the women and angry demands for security to take her away.
She wondered, as the Regents did, where the palace police were, but she didn’t dare stop to look around. It hurt to breathe but desperation pushed her onward, chasing questions toward a destination that seemed horribly far away.
Had Matty slept at all? Or did he just wait until she drifted off to slip out of the room? Could he really have made love to her with his decision made? Did it hurt to walk away? Why was he doing this?
Wasn’t I enough?
Iris stumbled at the corner of the north wing’s main corridor. Two police agents closed in on her. She heard them coming, felt their boots stomping through her veins. Defiance pushed her forward.
The private corridor of the Steer Residence was blocked by a waist-high of solid hardwood and guarded by the king’s white Kitsune. If she was going to be caught, it would be here, but the universe saw fit to cut her some slack. Conrad Marlo, the only guard on duty, lunged for her as she hurdled over the gate. He missed.
Slipping past was a short-lived victory. Conrad threw open the lock, allowing the agents to run straight through. Iris’ hope of catching Matty faded with every footfall, bled out with her sweat and tears. She knew that she had been too late before she darted from the only bed they might ever share, but still she prayed.
Please, Matty, don’t open that door. Don’t open that door.
Iris came upon the corridor where she hoped Matty was still struggling with his choice to enter the palace’s forbidden garden. Biting back tears, she turned left.
Sunset glowed through an open doorway. The smell of jasmine and moist earth kicked her in the stomach.
Oh, God, he opened it.
Her hands and knees stung as they landed on the floor. The agents caught up to her, passed her, and kept walking. They drew their weapons. It was then that she realized her mistake.
With her chest heaving, lungs burning, she croaked between gasps, “No!”
The police hadn’t known Matty was there. Conrad either hadn’t noticed or had pretended not to, but it was Iris’ experience that the Kitsune noticed everything. Matty might have gotten away with opening the door if she hadn’t shot through the palace like a bullet in the king’s direction.
Iris remembered sitting on Matty’s bed that afternoon. He knelt at her feet with his hands behind her knees and gazed up at her with his pale green eyes. His lips, like rose petals on his fair skin, turned up at one corner. He pleaded, “Have faith in me.”
She had meant to stop him, to save him from himself. Instead, she led the police agents right to him.
“Please!” she begged Conrad. The guardian wrapped his uniform jacket around her. While he helped her back to her feet, Iris grabbed his shirt in both hands. “Conrad!”
“He broke the law.”
The so-called “Janus Law” was the kingdom’s oldest royal decree. It compelled Columbia’s high court to pass a death sentence on anyone who trespassed in the Lost Garden. The Regent Assembly couldn’t abolish royal decrees. For the king, pardoning violators had consequences. It had been more than two hundred years since that door was locked, and by all accounts, no one had ever been willing to pay the price for its secrets… until Matty realized he had the key.
Iris wailed. “It’s a stupid law!” She saw compassion in Conrad’s eyes and whimpered, “Help him.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said firmly.
She heard a commotion from the garden and whipped her gaze toward it. The police agents dragged her handcuffed lover back across the threshold. He was covered in pollen. Sweat streaked his face. Each holding an arm, the agents lifted him high enough that his dirty boots barely touched the floor.
“Matty!” she screamed, pulling against the guardian’s grasp in vain. She opened her mouth to say she was sorry, but her aching throat betrayed her.
His eyes were wide with defiance and fear as he stammered, “January Black, Iris!”
She thrust herself at him and growled through her teeth in frustration when Conrad’s grip on her arms held firm. Wrenching his body backward, Matty nearly broke himself free of the agents.
“January Black!” Matty yelled again before his captors regained control.
Iris glanced back down the hallway to the open doorway, to a vague shape silhouette against the dusk sky. I hope you found what you were looking for.
Conrad laid his hand on her shoulder and gently pulled her toward the Steer Gate. “Stay quiet. I will speak to the king. He will pardon you.”
She didn’t care if he did. The Regents were going to condemn the man she loved for opening a door.
Struggling with the slip-cuffs to flash a sign with his bleeding right hand, Matty extended three fingers from his fist, keeping the third and fourth curled. She remembered the first time she saw that sign. They were at a cafe. There was a photograph near the beverage bar of a woman with her husband. The woman made that sign at the camera. Iris had mimicked it and rotated her wrist to view it from all sides.
Matty explained, “It means….”
“I love you!” Iris cried. His head bowed forward. His body seemed to relax. He stopped fighting the agents as they pulled him toward the Steer Gate.
She felt sick. What use was love to them now?
Matty wasn’t done misbehaving. The fingers on his left hand counted down, three, two, one. His left hand closed into a fist. The curled fingers of his right opened.