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the Princess Neela,” sniffed Matali’s subassistant to the third minister of the interior under the oversecretary of the Emperor’s Chamber. “The Princess Neela wouldn’t be caught
 dressed like that. You are an imposter. Obviously disturbed. Possibly dangerous. You must leave the palace right now or I shall call the guards.”Neela groaned. She’d been arguing with the subassistant, the gatekeeper to the Emperor’s Chamber, for a solid ten min-utes. And that was
she’d argued with the executive assis-tant to the keeper of the portcullis, the senior assistant to the chamberlain of the Emperor’s Courtyard, and the assistant chief steward, twice removed, of the exterior grand foyer.She’d arrived at the palace an hour ago. After diving into the mirror inside the river witches’ Incantarium, she’d gotten lost in Vadus, and it had taken her a long time to find her way out again. Finally another mirror got her to a Matali dress shop. Luckily, the place was so busy, no one noticed when she’d sud-denly appeared in the dressing room. Never had she been so happy to be home. As she’d swum out of the shop, she’d spotted the palace and as always, the very sight of it—with its gleaming
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golden domes, its soaring rock crystal colonnades, and vaulted archways—had taken her breath away.The heart of the palace was an enormous white marble octagon, flanked by towers. Matali’s flag—a red banner featur-ing a Razormouth dragon with a silver-blue egg in its claws—fluttered from each one. The palace had been built by Emperor Ranajit ten centuries ago, on a deepwater rock shelf off the southwestern coast of India. When subsequent emperors ran out of room on the original shelf, they built on nearby outcroppings and connected the old to the new with covered marble bridges. Slender and graceful, the passageways allowed the courtiers and ministers who lived on the outcroppings to travel to and from the palace without having their robes of state rumpled by the currents.As Neela had drawn near, she’d seen that the palace looked different. Its windows had been shuttered, and its gateways locked. Members of the P¯an¯ı od’dh¯a’¯o˙m, Matali’s water war- riors, patrolled the perimeter.“Excuse me, can you tell me what’s going on? Why is the palace surrounded by guards?” she’d asked a passing merman.“Have you been living under a rock? We’re preparing for war! The emperor and empress have been assassinated. The crown prince is missing. All of Matali is under martial law,” the merman had said. “Ondalina’s behind it all—mark my words.”Neela was so stunned she’d had to sit down. The man’s words felt like a knife to her heart. During the chaos of the attack on Cerulea, she had become separated from her fam-ily. In the days that followed, she’d assumed they’d been taken
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prisoner, but she never thought the invaders would kill them. Her Uncle Bilaal and Aunt Ahadi . . .
. Grief had hit her full on. She’d lowered her head into her hands.
 Her uncle had been a just ruler, and her aunt kind and good-hearted. And Mahdi . . . he was missing. That meant her parents were now emperor and empress. Was Yazeed with them? Had he escaped the carnage?After a few minutes, Neela had picked her head up. Sitting on a bench, she realized, was helping no one. “Get up and
 something,” she’d told herself.She’d fought her way through guards and bureaucrats to get to the Emperor’s Chamber and now she wanted to go inside it. She needed to see her parents and tell them all that had hap-pened. What she
need was to spend one more minute arguing with the subassistant.“I
 the princess! I was in Cerulea when it was invaded. I’ve been on the swim ever since.
 why I look like this!” she shouted, slapping her tail fin in frustration.“Ah! You see? More evidence that you are an imposter,” the subassistant said smugly. “The Princess Neela
 shouts.”Neela leaned in close to him. “When my father finds out that I was here and you turned me away, you’ll be guarding the door to the broom closet!”The subassistant nervously tapped his chin. “I suppose you
 fill out a form,” he said. He searched the shelves behind him. “I’m sure I have one somewhere. Ah! Here we are.
Official  Application for Grant of Consideration of Request for Petition of  Possibility of Permission to Enter the Royal Presence

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