Ahhh, the final quarter of the book, during which time I must pay special attention to the order of events, making sure I get in what needs to be in, and so on. I’ve dedicated more time to these last few chapters than any other. And I have a cold, so I a suffering from mild oxygen deprivation, which makes me rather loopy and rambling. So I’m going to stop the introduction before I ramble further.
Your Dearest, Light-Headed Nicolette
Midnight found me back in the sickbay delivering the soup herbs, the drinking herbs, and a large jar of salve for when the rashes broke out. Belle dragged behind me, laying down whenever I stood still for even a few seconds, and groaning when she realized she would have to get back up again. Using the secret tunnels allowed me to slip into my new room in the lounge without having to meet with anyone else. A light came from the parlor, and I walked out onto the loft.
“…how much longer do you think before Hunter sends us out after the Liaison?”
“You know ‘im better than I do, but I’d say that when he gets back, either we’re all here, or no one is,” answered Clyde.
“I take it you knocked on every door and got the word out about the Fever Blankets,” I said, causing both of them to jump and stare upwards.
Ash whistled. “I expect these dramatic appearances from Hunter! How long have you been there?”
“Doesn’t matter. About those scraps?”
“All taken care of. Hilda has started a fire for them.”
“Any news on Hunter yet?”
Clyde yawned and said, “I saw him about an hour ago. He said he’d be back soon. We’ll yell for you if needed.”
Belle had declared bedtime by laying on a pile of blankets on the loft. I had intended to spread a couple of them out for myself, but the room was warm and comfortable. I laid down next to her, putting my head on her makeshift bed. The guards talked in low voices, bantering back and forth about a little of this and a little of that, their voices like the shush of wind outside.
I couldn’t sleep.
Not with the wrapper still tucked away in my sock where I had put it after throwing away the food all those weeks ago. I never had read it. I suppose I had never had the guts to, after all. I’d assumed it had told me about Bart, but assumptions were a bad thing to make.
I listened closely to the guards downstairs and verified that Hunter had not entered the room, then spread open the wrapper, secretly hoping the river had washed away whatever had been written. Luck was not with me, for the letters stood out clear as day against the crumbled, sweat-stained note. It was written in the code we servants had constructed out of symbols, shorthand, and scraps of common-knowledge war language; it had taken me a while to learn the basics, and this was actually pretty complex to write. Acronyms I had learned were not used, and that made me think that whoever wrote it had worked at the castle before my time.
“He will rise again. Let the Phoenix reign!”
The Phoenix was a passing fad of my parent’s generation, when they had grown tired of having such a plain symbol as a hound and they wanted something more glamorous. Immediately after was a movement to return to tradition.
Looking past this, though, I considered the meaning behind the note. I read it many times to make sure that it said he and not the country or somesuch thing. No, it clearly said He will rise again. Who would rise again? Who was Momma? Was she behind the Fever handkerchiefs? Who was behind my first assassination attempt? Was it Momma in disguise, or was it really a group of foreigners who hated my kind?
What even was my kind? Who did I belong to? I felt lost, like suddenly my world had shifted and the ground that had been beneath my feet had turned to sand. I was my mother’s mother’s daughter, after all, and she was very plainly—and very purely—not what I had fancied her to be. I couldn’t believe it. For all these years, my mother had been born of Prince and Princess. If her parents had wed, would the war have stopped with Grandmother’s generation? What had happened to her groom, and why hadn’t he returned? Grandmother might be able to sit in her cottage and wait, but not I. I would find out, if only because I needed to understand.
What if that understanding did not lead to the conclusion I hoped it would, but instead posed still more questions? Would there be an end to this?
I fell asleep in spite of my wandering mind, waking up slightly when Hunter came back and called for me to answer. I asked about the lady. His reply was not a happy one, and I left it at that.
In the following days, I helped Hilda change out Fever Blankets and use the herbs properly, accepting questions about the upcoming festival in between patients. The Fever hit the children early this year, and I was able to field the questions new mothers had until one of Grandmother’s friends came to relieve me. There were innumerable staff members trying to get clothes from Hilda, and soon the woman became strained.
I took a day off to go find her a seamstress.
The weather was bright, which meant that the festival was doomed to be rained upon, and every native knew this. It seemed to be a universal decision to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted, and every person was out on the streets. This was both an advantage and a detriment to my day. Children and adults alike played with Belle. I ignored some pointed stares and jeers from some of my countrymen who weren’t so happy with my decision to break from tradition. A few people refused to talk with me, and I simply passed them up for someone with a more open mind.
After many shops and many more conversations, I was eventually lead to Deann, the woman who made the Fever Blankets.
“I didn’t think you were a seamstress, exactly,” I said once I had finally found her setting up her booth.
“My sisters do the blankets, I’ve just got the pretty face and lack of stutter needed to sell them,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do seamstress work instead—or in addition to, that is. This is a bit of a seasonal job.”
“Will you help?”
Dean paused, running her fingers through silky hair, thinking. “Are there really going to be hounds again?”
“When’s the wedding?”
Despite myself, I blanched a little, catching my expression before it lingered too long on my face. “There isn’t going to be one. Since I’m the Liaison.”
Deann scratched Belle’s ears and the dog smiled up at her. “It’s a bold move, to shy away from tradition like that. Do you think that more positions of authority will open up for women? All the recent appointments are men.”
I had to think about this. “I can talk to the King about it, since he does the appointing.”
“But, no promises.”
“I promise I will talk to him and be as persuasive as I possibly can.”
She flipped her hair over her shoulder and stood more upright, letting Belle lean against her skirted shins. “Do you know what they say about you?”
My heart fluttered in my chest the way Deann’s hair did in the breeze. “Who?”
“They. People. The crowd.”
“I don’t care what ‘they’ say,” I said; I wished it were true.
“You wouldn’t be a woman if you didn’t care even a little.”
“I don’t want to know what they say. I have a job to do, and I’ve got enough to think about without having their voices ringing in my head.”
Her lips curled in admiration. “I like you. The King’s policies aren’t in line with what I think, not that I hate him, but I can see myself supporting you. I’ll take the position, but it’ll be a little sporadic until the Fever season slows. …how are the castlefolk doing? I heard about the incident, though your boyfriend is very good about damage control.”
“They’re recovering, and there isn’t the emergency there once was. And, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Her lips twitched and she took my elbow. “Take what I hear with a little reservation, but that man is very gifted at reading people and manipulating them to meet his ends. Just something to keep in mind.”
A customer came to the stall, and I left.
My thoughts were disturbed by Ash waving at me through the crowd. We were in the middle of a herd of light-haired people, and they were none too eager to move out of the way of the King’s dark-haired guard. I whistled a greeting and called out, “Hey, Ash! Having trouble?” and the crowd parted down the middle for him.
As I started forward to meet him, a very pregnant woman stopped me. “Can I…can you touch my stomach? For luck and prosperity.”
Surprised, I did so. Belle licked the woman’s fingers, and she walked away beaming as though she had gone down to the holy well and had a priest bless her.
“What was that about?” asked Ash. He wasn’t the only one who noticed, and I realized most of the gazes were of timid interest.
“Important figures such as queens, saints, and that sort of thing are expected to touch those who need it,” said Clyde, coming out of the crowd like a fog. “Some people think it’s a little premature, but I think they need a person they can rely on.”
“Huh. You people have…strange hygenic-spiritual clashes.”
“You’re one to talk! Your men kiss the hands of all women! Any idea where, say, a butcher’s daughter has had her hands?”
I could have entertained not only myself, but a good portion of the watching crowd by letting them continue on, but I cut them off. “Ash, you wanted to tell me something?”
He squinted and pursed his lips, recalling a message. “The stablemaster says the horses have been assembled. You’re supposed to meet Hunter there.”
I said my thanks, and escaped the crowd before anyone became brave enough to ask me to touch them.
I was still recovering from the shock of being asked to touch someone by the time I met up with Hunter at the stables. The stablemaster was a new man, a young man with light hair and yellow skin whose strained expression switched to a broad smile when he saw me.
“Belle! It’s been too long! You don’t recognize me, do you? I left the castle when the horse trainer apprenticed me…”
“Jacks,” I said, returning a meeker smile. I hadn’t paid him much attention, but he always had taken special care of my mount. “I’m happy to see you doing so well.”
“I heard you were Liaison, but I didn’t believe it! I mean, you’re a woman and a commoner, and you’re setting the customs this country will follow for generations. If you can do that, what can’t we ordinary folk do?” He talked as he lead a horse in a large circle, tying it up with other horses in varying sizes, and shades of white. “So, um, Sir, these are the best I could come up with. Which will be your pleasure for the Great Unicorn Hunt?”
While Jacks was talking, Hunter muttered to me, “I told you to go no where without guards.”
“Ash and Clyde were nearby.”
“Not near enough. You’ve earned my personal attention, and I expect you to tell me when you leave.”
“Umm…Sir? Should I leave…you to make your selection…in private?”
I held Hunter’s gaze, then sighed. “Fine, I will let you know the next time I’m going to risk my life by wandering through the streets with a guard dog and the King’s finest on every corner.”
The muscles in his cheek tensed, and I saw his fist clench. “That is not what I meant.”
“…sir? I’m just…going to leave…”
I leaned forward, jabbing my finger into his chest. “No, you meant that you wanted to keep your gaze on me to make sure I didn’t go meet with saboteurs. I don’t understand how half the country can be looking up to me to do right by them, but I can’t even convince you that I don’t have a hidden agenda. And, Jacks, you stay put.”
I thought Hunter was going to go red in the face, but he let out a huff of breath and sat back on his heels. “You’re right. I should have more faith in you. You haven’t lead me astray yet, and you’ve done everything to earn my trust. I can’t say that you have it yet, but you deserve to be off my watch-list.” Hunter smiled at Jacks. “Pick the best blanket for Belle. She is going to ride each one bareback and make her selection.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I thought that you always chose the ‘unicorn’.”
He smiled. “It is a privilege that will go very noticed, and I think it is a nice way to bring in your people’s view of how a unicorn should be.”
I met each horse and talked with Jacks, deciding to not even try to ride two of the more dominant stallions, and quickly making my top three choices based on their dispositions. Jacks and I agreed on a draft gelding that he had trained to do advanced movements. I did not know what skills the maiden the King had selected would have, but this would be an ideal horse under any circumstances.
I saw the congregation of people waiting for me, and I recognized them mostly from the festival planning, but also from the legal department and the education board. Dropping off the horse, I went to attending the less-than-pleasant aspect of my duties.
After the evening of attending to ‘urgent’ matters, Belle lead me to Hunter’s lounge at an hour much later than I had wanted. Ash, Clyde, and Hunter took turns keeping guard, and I wished I had someone to take turns with. Ash followed me inside the quarters, where he met up with Clyde and Hunter.
The two royal guards talked for a minute, then excused themselves to their quarters across the hall. Hunter shut the door and locked it, letting out a heavy groan as he dropped into a chair close by.
“Long day for you, too?” I teased—before gritting my teeth as I settled in a parlor chair.
She dropped onto my feet, smacking her lips and wagging her tail once. I shrugged. “Tired, which means she’s actually behaving.”
Hunter stared at the dwindling flames in the fireplace. “I really should get up and put more wood on.”
“I’ll do it. I’ve got to clean out my pockets.” I stood up, wriggling my feet out from under Belle, who groaned. After tossing on three logs, I sorted through my pockets and tossed the scraps in the fire. Much of it was straw from the dirt kicked up, and there were a couple notes that I did not want to keep. But one I did not remember. I unfolded it and read the simple words:
Fountain during Great Hunt
Seeing me pause, Hunter called, “What’s that?”
I ripped it in half twice and put it in the hottest part of the fire, watching it burn. “Nothing.”
A scratching noise on the secret door woke me before I could fall into too restful of a sleep; it sounded a little like a mouse, but I recognized it as a fingernail on wood. It was how the other maids had woken me in the past—not that it was foolproof, but it was a start.
Crawling, I made my way over to the entrance and whispered, “What?”
“Bella? Is that you?”
My jaw dropped, and I checked to make sure the dog was still asleep. She was exhausted. I leaned in and said a little louder than I wanted, “Mother?”
“Shhh. Step outside, there’s a balcony, we can talk.”
“Don’t want to talk,” I muttered, my mind a muddled mess. I double-checked on Belle, hoping that she would wake up so I had an excuse to not go. She was snoring. I found my way to the door and fumbled with it until Mother helped me swing it outside. Leaving it open an inch, I hissed, “What is it?”
“That’s some way to talk to your mother!”
“It’s late, and I’m tired. What are you even doing here?”
She sniffed, her curly blonde hair bouncing with the miffed gesture. She had a beauty mark above her lip, and I realized I had inherited that from her. What had I gotten from Father? His patience?
“I work my fingers to the bone for my daily living not three blocks from here, and you never come by to say hello.”
“But, you’re supposed to be out on the farm. Where’s Father? And my brothers? What’s happened?”
“The farms were largely left untouched by Phinneus, but I could not stand by idly while the wrong king sits on the throne.”
“You serve Momma.”
She smiled. “I know you’re gentle and can’t stand the thought of adult matters, so I will spare you the details.”
“I am in this, I was born into this. Grandmother’s story—where she came from—is real. I don’t know if the prince in her tale is real or not, but I would think that she would have a good idea of what they look like, how they behave and dress, so if he wasn’t a prince, he was darned close. And you—you were her only child.”
Mother tipped her chin upwards, and framed in the moonlight, she looked very much like a queen. Beneath rough fabric and scarf to protect her ears from the elements, she had never looked like royalty, but here, after so many days of good food, good clothes, and plenty of soap, she shined like a polished gem.
“What do you want?”
“After the festival, the King is going to announce his betrothed, a woman from one of the Islands, though it is not clear which one, and I want you to find this woman and keep her safe in the gardens during the time of the announcement.”
“I won’t tell you anything more than this. Keep your nose clean, and for all that’s reasonable, keep your mouth shut about this!”
“What’s to stop me from waking Hunter up right now?”
“You think that because you’ve wormed your way into a corner of ‘is heart that you’re immune to ‘is justice? Ask ‘im about Tailor, and see how confident you are after that. Trust me, dear, you’re better off keeping that girl safe and letting those who know the play do the puppeteering.”
I grabbed her arm. “Wait! What do you want? What do you intend to gain out of this?”
“The good of the people, of course.”
“Where’s Father? What’s happened to him, and why are you in the castle?”
“Hush, Child. You speak of what you do not know.” Her face was taut and strained, and she looked decades beyond her age. I had an iron grip on her arm, and she hissed at me. “Let go!”
“Why are you here?”
Her face contorted into an expression I had seen before on the angels in the garden, a thing dark and terrible, a shell of beauty concealing something rotten within. “Your father is dead, and his murderer’s kingdom is going to pay for it.”
“Father…is dead?” Forget sand under my feet, I was standing on ice, staring at the monsters and boulders beneath, waiting for me to quiver and break through the ice. I was drowning already, my body just didn’t know it yet. If Father was dead, who had done it? King Phinneus had not sent soldiers out to the country, not from what I had heard. I shouldn’t ask. I shouldn’t ask, but it slipped my lips in one convenient word. “Who?”
Her resemblance to the tarnished angels melted away, and she looked out over the balcony. “Hunter. I thought that you knew. I am sorry, Child. I thought you knew.”
This time, I let her go vanish into the waning night. My hand shook, emptied of the warmth of her arm.