Lots of twists and turns in this one! Belle is fighting an increasingly uphill battle , and soon she will discover if it is worth it to keep on resisting. She seems to have gained an almost-unquestioning ally in Hunter, but with that faith will come a more sour disappointment once he discovers that she has kept secrets from him—important secrets. How this all turns out will depend on others as well as on the protagonist. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a country to raise a kingdom. And while Belle has been enjoying the countryside, someone has been poisoning the well.
I can’t believe how much Belle has changed by this point! She goes from running at the slightest crunch of a foot to ordering around the king’s royal guards, telling the assassin what to do, and even taking his horse and the shirt off his back. She is starting to see the hound as an extension of herself, instead of being defined by it.
I don’t particularly enjoy “introducing” characters so late in the story, but my plan is to add them into the beginning segments upon revision, as well as to add some hints or maybe a scene about the Fever. But, what the hey, when I started all I had were two pages of scenes I wanted to write. No background, no character profiles, nothing besides two pages, an image of a tattered woman and her dog, and a camp guarded by soldiers.
Written with love,
Your Dearest Nicolette
Hunter kept his horse walking nice and slow despite the subtle urges the mare and I were giving him to hurry up; at last, the mare sighed and walked quietly next to him.
“What was that you said about a lame horse?”
So he had heard my yells at the soldier; the better question was if anyone hadn’t heard it. When the land was still after a snowfall, noise traveled very well, and my temper had reached near-scream volume. “The stablemaster gave Bart a gelding with a lame foot—my bet is he had a rock in his frog—and when I said so, he told me to mind my own business. I didn’t want to make a fuss over it, I thought we would walk around for a little and return.”
Hoofbeats filled the silence. Then Hunter said, “Tell me what happened. All of it.”
I did, glossing over the many times I nearly stepped off a cliff and initially omitting the wolves until Hunter raised a questioning eyebrow. I added them to the report.
We were coming around the last bend, and I waited for Hunter’s reply. “You think it was a setup. That the stablemaster had a hand in this.”
“That, or he is utterly incompetent. I wouldn’t think the King would tolerate the second. Why didn’t you get this information from Bart?”
He nodded. “Not much left but a battered skeleton and a shredded uniform. I’m sorry.”
I was going to faint. Just like that. Just like some swooning princess. Topple right off my horse and go all silly in the snow, and stay like that until a man was brawny enough to slap me out of hysterics.
Except that I didn’t. I didn’t think I could, but in my mind, that’s what I saw myself doing. In reality, I sat on my mare and looked unexpressively out on the world. Yes, I had enjoyed being around Bart, but I hadn’t been exceptionally fond of him, either. People much more dear to me had died in the camp. I had no problem dealing with death. What I did have a problem with were all the people who were going to very sorely miss their prodigal prince—that meant Momma and a small army who wore smiles and citizen’s clothes.
And the worst part was, I couldn’t tell Hunter this, not without losing his trust. And if Momma blamed me for what happened to the prince, I would need Hunter by my side. But how long could I play the fool before my past caught up to me and I was forced to tell all?
We passed under the portcullis, and Hunter said, “You will remain close to me. Until I can find a suitable replacement, I will be your guard… Starting once I take care of the horses.”
Any urge I had to demand the privilege to yell at the stablemaster died in my throat at the cold sheen over his eyes. Instead, I swallowed and whispered, “Sir.”
I had the feeling that the stablemaster was going to get much more than anything I had the heart to adminster.
Two guards dressed in red uniforms approached my horse; one took her head and the other offered me help down. One was foreign, one was native. I was very careful to not look over my shoulder as they guided me through the hallways I knew better than they did. We were going to the chancellor’s lounge. I had helped the head maid clean it on several occasions while the princess slept in—the woman had given me a few bits of silver that I could use in secret, away from the prying eyes of the princess. The lounge was the size of most nice houses, having two stories and a loft. There was a den, a parlor, three bedrooms, a one-room library, and a spare room. The queen’s suite had not been so extensive, though it did have a private garden that the chancellor’s lounge lacked.
“I would like to go to the sick wing first,” I said.
The guards turned close-cut heads to see what the other thought.
I spoke up before they could come to their own decision. “It isn’t a request. Hilda can come with us to the lounge. Or one of you can go get her while I go to quarters. And I’ll take on any of Hunter’s wrath, if you’re concerned about that.”
They were concerned about that, and with any sense or reason, I should be as well. They hesitated, and I wondered if they were accustomed to working together or if they shared a brain.
One of them shrugged, and made a turn down to the sick wing.
Within minutes, I stood in the doorway with the sounds of muffled coughs reaching me. The room was very full, every cot taken by three people sitting side by side, and a narrow isle cut through the bodies of people standing. Most all of the patients had darker hair and a tanned complexion. I looked to the foreign guard. “What is going on here?”
He shrugged. “My guess is the weather has been a little too temperamental lately.”
“Still want to wait in line?” asked the other.
I ignored him, politely elbowing my way through the crowd until I reached the tall woman barely enduring the wines of a much-less-sick-than-others man. “Hilda?”
She gladly turned away from him, her faced washed with relief. “I’m so glad you’re back! Any poisons? Bad injuries?”
“Scrapes, bruises, and saddle sores. Nothing I can’t take care of, but I need some disinfectant, a salve, and a wrap. I see you’re busy.”
The woman reached onto a shelf I’d never be able to come near without a ladder—it must be nice being so tall—and grabbed a satchel down for me. “They all came in last night and this morning. Coughing, sneezing, teary eyes, fevers, aches and pains…it doesn’t seem like much, but the ones who came in yesterday are so hot that we have children gathering snowballs for ice packs. I haven’t seen anything quite like this, and I’m worried.”
I took the bundle and checked that it had what I needed. It did, and more. “Thank you. And ask around the street for a lady named Deann, she makes something called Fever Blankets. They wick away the heat better than anything else, they’re made from a local plant, but don’t use any with stripes. Just the white ones.”
She made a note on a scrap of parchment. “I’ll check on you two once things have calmed down.”
My guards caught up with me in time for me to turn around. “Let’s go.”
I claimed the spare room upstairs that lead to the loft. Hunter had not changed the appearance of the lounge much during his stay, and he didn’t bring in anything more than clothes, weapons, books, knives, poison makings, and more weapons. I know. I snooped once I was finished wrapping Belle’s paw.
“Don’t know what’s taking him so long…” muttered one guard, a man called Ash. He was the foreigner, and he got dimples when he made any sort of facial expression. He caught me staring over the railing at the two of them seated at the parlor table. “And I’m downright certain he wanted you in the room downstairs here.”
“Let ‘er be, Ash. Belle’s always ‘ad a mind a ‘er own, and Hunter’d be a fool t’ not see it by now,” said the other man, Clyde, one I recognized belatedly as the guard for the prince that liked to share lunch with my princess. I wondered if he had known Bart’s true identity, and if he was serving Momma or Hunter.
“All I’m saying is that we should insist.”
“Ya told ‘er once. That’s insisting. Now quit your brooding afore she thinks you’re being a pain, or you’ll end up like Gill did.”
I laughed, giving away that I really was listening despite my best efforts not to. Through the chuckles down below, I heard the soft click of a door as Hunter entered through the hidden passage behind a tapestry. That one he had likely discovered by inspecting the room closely, and it did not join up with the other secret passageways in the castle. I wondered how many others he knew about.
“How did Gill end up?” Hunter’s voice startled the guards into jumping out of their chairs and drawing their swords.
“How did you…?” said Ash.
“Magic,” Hunter said, then repeated his question, sitting next to the guards at the table.
“…he broke out in a rash that lasted for days. A rash in…sensitive places.”
I smiled to myself. It had been one of my more ingenious moments, using poison ivy to spike his moisturizing oil.
“Intriguing, but how did he know it was Belle who gave it to him?”
“Spicemint sprigs. Anytime Belle did something, she always left behind spicemint. It’s something of a rarity and no one could ever manage to follow her to her stash.”
Hunter craned his head up at me. “She can be very erratic to follow.”
Ash sneezed and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief, but what he pulled out was not an ordinary piece of fabric, but instead was a red-striped swatch from a child’s fever blanket.
“Don’t use that!” I shrieked at him. “You’ll get the Fever. Where did you even get it?”
“A lady came selling handkerchiefs. They’re soft and strong, so what does it matter?” Ash spoke indignantly. “You’re not supposed to look on while one blows his nose. It’s a matter of privacy.”
And suddenly, a terrible realization dawned on me. The Fever started off like a cold, but very quickly it spiraled into a fever that blotched the skin purple and white. If the cough grew too fluid, the person would drown. I, and every native over childhood age, were immune, but the foreigners had never seen it before. If the woman who sold the handkerchiefs had found them by accident, this was a grave misfortune. But if the woman knew the blankets were contagious…
“What lady sold them? Was she foreign—I mean—”
“One of your kind.”
I felt the blood drain from my face as I stood up. “Ash and Clyde, get every single one of those Fever Blanket scraps. Hunter, I’m taking one of your tunics and your horse.”
He stood up, his face a mixture of amusement and alarm. “What for?”
“Saving every foreigner in the castle. And you, you’re going to find that lady.”