The “chapters” are getting more difficult! But it’s so much fun. I had a hard time deciding when I wanted to reveal the second portion of this segment; at first, I thought I was going to have to put it a little later, but I just wrote up the first bit and I think the two work well hand-in-hand. We get to see Hunter as an actual person now, a man with fumbles and uncertainties. Even for those who know him well, it is not often that he gets off-balance. Ironically, it is Belle who has the upper hand and remains collected. Is her behavior what throws him off, or is he struggling to come to terms with emerging emotions?
I do so love to torment my characters.
Your Dearest Nicolette
The time till the Festival rushed past me in a whirl of meetings, decisions, arguments, and chasing down people who did not do as they promised, though they said it would get done, and I had to be contented to leave it at that. The first day of the festival was filled with constant harassment by people who were not sure how to do this or that. I didn’t have a clue, either, and I spouted out nonsense until they thought of a way to do it. By nightfall, the people involved in planning ceased their pestering and fell into the spirit of entertaining the customers. With the influx of new citizens brought a night filled with games, drinking, eating, and buying. The vendors I coaxed in to attending the first festival since the takeover were very pleased with their earnings, and I found myself admitting in vendors who wanted to join late.
I took refuge behind Deann’s cart, helping her to fold a few Fever Blankets after they came off the drying line.
This time, I spotted Hunter in the crowd before he reached me. A smile crept over my face when I realized he really was coming to see me.
He said, “I’ve been looking for you. Ash or Clyde around?”
“Both. Ash is being used as a magician’s volunteer, and Clyde is laughing at him, just over there.”
“Don’t worry, Sir, Belle is in good hands with all this boiling treatment surrounding us,” said Deann, using a stick to fish a blanket out of a simmering cauldron. I grabbed the second stick and helped hold it until she grabbed a hook to suspend the blanket on. Hunter ran his fingers over the dried blankets, then felt the ones prior to treatment. “It makes them softer?”
“It does, but that isn’t why we treat the Fever Blankets,” said Deann. “It’s a recipe of herbs—spicemint is the main one, you can smell it—that helps to soothe the skin and make the infants sleepy so they don’t scratch. Thing is, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Make it too intense, and your baby doesn’t wake up. That’s why people know to go to me….though, Belle here might be able to make up a decent batch very soon.”
“Mmm, that might be handy to have in the castle.” He patted the blankets and tipped his head toward me. “I was going to ask you if you could recommend a place for dinner. But, if you’re too busy drip-drying blankets…”
Deann poked me with her stick. “Get out of here! Go enjoy the festival.”
Stepping out into the walkway where grass was already turning to dirt, I looked to catch Clyde’s eye. He saw Hunter and waved, then went back to cajoling Ash about looking so stunned when the magician produced an egg from behind his ear.
I almost lost Hunter when a group of giggling girls moved away from a jewelry stand. When I next found him, I did like all the friends did, and grabbed his elbow. I didn’t think about it until he raised his eye at me.
“Social taboo?” I let him go.
“It’s fine,” he said, waiting for me to grab his elbow again. I did, but I let go as soon as we had food and were out of the stampede zone.
We sat on a grassy slope beneath budding trees, and soon Belle joined us, curling up between Hunter and me. She had food, and soon an agitated adolescent exclaimed that Belle had stolen it right out from under his nose. Hunter gave the boy a coin that would buy much more than one meal, and the young man left.
“She’s rather similar to a child sometimes,” mused Hunter.
“You wouldn’t know that I’ve been working with her on not stealing.”
He snorted. “I’ve noticed. She doesn’t do it to me anymore, but if she thinks one of us isn’t watching, she will do exactly as she pleases.”
“I…I could start to leave her in the King’s kennels with the other hounds.”
Hunter smiled. “And make her a normal hound? It is a crime. I was actually planning on bringing Trigger inside.”
“I thought the King didn’t allow that.”
Hunter gave Belle a piece of meat from his meal. “The King makes special allowances for my eccentricities…and he is reaching that point with you.”
I leaned back, resting on my elbows so I had a better view of the stars struggling to break through the clouds, the moon a wavering shimmer with branches reaching up towards it. “Why am I getting that privilege?”
“Can you imagine this festival happening if someone else tried to do it.”
I could, and I saw a wide variety of success. “Yes.”
“But do you envision that they would have drawn such an even crowd?”
Light-haired and dark-haired people mingled from booth to booth in even numbers, and I did not think that it would have been possible to have a better crowd. “It does seem to be going well.”
“It is going very well, and there isn’t a more dependable person to rely on. You’re self-sufficient, smart, and you know how to bring out the best in people.”
I smiled. “That sounds like your opinion.”
The smile spread to his lips.“It is.”
My stomach twisted and my heart skipped a beat, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed both sensations almost as much as hearing his words. I remembered what Deann had said about Hunter’s ability to say what people wanted him to say, and looked down at Belle to cover my disappointment. Belle rolled her head against me, flipping onto her back and pawing at the air.
“I think I’m going to go get sleep,” I said, rocking up onto my feet and starting back toward the castle.
“Wait.” Hunter stood up quicker than he usually did, jogging a step to catch up, which amused me and made me wonder if he was genuine. “What are you doing tomorrow during the Great Hunt?”
“Hiding from the world. Why?”
“Do I count as part of the world?”
I decided to play the player. Rolling my shoulders, I slithered up close to his chest and flirted with a toggle on his jacket. “Depends if you’re going to bring work.”
Hunter stopped himself from stepping back. He caught my hand and was about to let it go, but he changed his mind and held onto it. He spoke with the crisp professionalism that he gave the servants. “Ah, but it’s enjoyable work. I thought we could expand on your occasional poison tasting lessons by sampling a variety of fine drinks and food, all of which you would encounter during the course of the state dinners you will certainly be required to attend in the future.”
I laughed, a soft laugh, and started to walk back to the castle. He caught my arm.
“Well? Will you be joining me? And why are you laughing?”
“Because I made you nervous.”
Hunter’s face remained calm, but his words came in a rush. “What makes you think that? Honestly, I need to be cued in on what gives me away—not that I was giving anything away, because I was not nervous—”
“Hunter,” I said, squeezing his elbow and smiling.
He stopped rambling, took a breath, and said, “Thank you.”
“Night.” I made to go again, stopping when Hunter trotted to me again.
“Am I to assume you are not interested?”
He was serious. I pursed my lips to keep from smiling again. “Provide a difficult place to reach, and the assurance that no one will find us, and I just might be interested,” I said, batting my eyelashes at him before continuing on my way back to the castle. It was not far, and was well-lit due to all the torches lining the pathway out to the field we used to host the activities. Belle and I made it back to the loft without incident, and without running into anyone with festival business.
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. I rubbed my eyes and tried to not groan, so I would not awaken the dog.
Crawling, I made my way over to the entrance and whispered, “What?”
“Belle? Is that you?”
My jaw dropped, and I checked to make sure the dog was still asleep. She was. 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 did not. I found my way to the door and fumbled with it until Mother helped me swing it outside. Leaving the door open an inch in case it was locked, I hissed, “What is it?”
“That’s some way to talk to your mother!”
“It’s late, and I’m tired.” I rubbed my face again, shivering in the cold. “What are you doing here?”
She sniffed, her curly blonde hair bouncing with the miffed gesture, drawing attention to the beauty mark above her lip. “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.”
She always had been a fervent supporter of the old King, much to Father’s disgust. It had started the customary evening argument almost without fail. A thought occurred to me, something that seemed like she would do. “You serve Momma.”
She smiled, though if she were pleased with my guess or with herself, I could not tell. She spoke to a polished plate she picked up off the outside table, using it as a mirror to tuck her hair back in place. “I know you’re gentle and can’t stand the thought of adult matters, so I will spare you the details.”
I put my hands on my hips and scowled. “No.”
“No, what?” She wasn’t paying me any more attention than she had when I was a child tugging on her skirt.
“I won’t be your pawn anymore. You used me to get lower market prices as a child, then to flirt with men so I could buy you livestock, then I was the quiet little sheep belonging to the princess. I finally have my own life, Mother, and I’m going to do with it as I please.”
She huffed, jutted out her pouty lip. That had always worked on Father, but it only annoyed me. When she saw this, she changed her tone to a reprimand. “You always have felt entitled.”
My jaw dropped. “I always felt entitled? I have nothing on you, you who grew up believing herself to be the undiscovered princess that would rule over two kingdoms, once Daddy came home with the deer.”
Mother’s face scrunched up, framed in the moonlight like a portrait of the old Queen in a rage. “You’ve been talking to that woman again. She’s done nothing but ruin my life, and I won’t stand to listen to any of her rants coming out of my daughter’s mouth.”
I sighed. “How about we forget it? I’m tired, and I’m saying things I don’t mean.”
She sniffed and smoothed out her fine clothes. If she had been working herself to the bone, it had been to buy pricey dresses and expensive hair soaps. Granted, it did make her look like royalty in a way that farmer’s rough fabric, scarves, and pimples never had. The strain faded from her face, and she said slowly, “Yes, yes, I believe we both are. It has been a trying day for myself as well.”
Glad as I was that we had sidestepped a potentially loud conversation, we were still outside and I wanted to go back to sleep. I didn’t bother with keeping my words nice. “What do you want?”
Mother jumped a little, as though coming back to reality. She cleared her throat. “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. I want you to find this woman and keep her safe in the gardens during the time of the announcement.”
I took a step towards her. “Mother, what is going on?”
She folded her arms, held her nose high, and looked to the side. “I won’t tell you anything more than this. Keep your nose clean, and, for all that’s reasonable, keep your mouth shut.”
“What’s to stop me from waking Hunter up right now?”
It broke through the high airs she was putting on, and she spoke as a farmer again, her words coming sharp but quiet. “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?”
Her airs returned, and she gave a dismissive wave. “The good of the people, of course.”
I did not like the way she was dodging my questions; it was a sure sign she was concealing information from me. “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!”
“What do you want? 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.”
I felt like a hammer had slammed into my gut. I had no air, no feeling. “Father…is dead?”
Her resemblance to the tarnished angels melted away, and she looked out over the balcony. “I thought that you knew. I am sorry, Child. I thought you knew.”
She tried to pull away, but a terrible question weighed on me, an answer I must know, even though that knowledge had driven my mother to abandon everything she had to set out to destroy what I had worked to unify. It would be a burden, one I could never forget, but I had to know. “How? Who killed him?”
The name seemed to come on the wind, she spoke it so soft. “Hunter.”
This time, I let her go vanish into the waning night. My hand shook, emptied of the warmth of her arm. I stood in the cold for some time, not thinking, not feeling, just staring out over the party just dying in the farmer’s field.