“It’s a good thing I kept those extra nanny goats last year!” announced Ironsides, setting the pitcher and mugs on the table and beginning to pour. “Otherwise we’d only be sharing thimbles of their milk instead of cups,” he smiled and Quill and I moved over to the table to receive our mugs. “Milda will be in shortly with the rest of breakfast.” Ironsides settled himself on a bench, and we sat across from him sipping our milk.
“It’s good,” I said, just to say something.
“Thank you,” replied Ironsides.
After that no one said anything, just sat drinking goat’s milk and observing the shape of the room. I wanted to ask more about Narya’s sorcery, Quill’s father, the new king, and everything else. But I wasn’t sure I should with Ironsides there. Finally, Milda came in with breakfast—a warm porridge with bacon and quince on the side. Then at least we had the food to discuss, even if it was in short bursts. I felt as if the reality of the Nether Queen’s sorcery was sitting at the table with us—silent, imposing, and superior. Was Ironsides right when he said she was already too strong…and if so, did that matter? To what hope did Quill refer? These questions took spots on the long benches also, and the room began to feel quite crowded to me. If Nadine were here conversation would have flowed easily in spite of all this. Or so I imagined. I hadn’t had the chance to discover if Nadine’s silver tongue had any effect on Quill’s stubbornness, but Ironsides at least would have talked. The princessly skill of table conversation was invaluable for diplomacy and information gathering—it was a tool I had to consciously pick up to use, whereas it was a part of Nadine. I wondered where my sister was, what she was doing, and if she were alright. Were they treating my family as valuable prisoners, protecting them as they should? Though nothing good could come of their imprisonment.
The porridge caught in my throat as grief from the past two weeks crashed down on me. A little food and sleep and suddenly I had energy to think about my problems again. My stomach turned over and I set down my spoon.
Quill and Ironsides both stopped to look at me. “Are you alright, my lady?” asked Quill.
I nodded. If by “alright” you mean “not choking to death,” then absolutely.
“What’s the matter, child?” asked Ironsides, setting his own spoon down, too.
I managed to meet his eyes. They were blue and kind, and if I looked too long I would cry. “I’m sorry,” I stood up, “I was thinking of my family—thank you for breakfast!” I nearly ran out of the great room and down the hallway that led out of the house. The air was cool but the morning sun was warm as I picked a direction and kept going out of the front yard. I didn’t go back into the orange grove, but cut right and discovered the barns. Past those, in a rocky paddock full of goats, I found Sinker and Hook browsing happily. I went to them and after a quick greeting, leaned into Hook’s shoulder and cried. The horses continued to clip grass, though Hook occasionally reached back to nose me while I sobbed about everything that had happened in the past year. My tears so rarely come there is a backlog of things to cry over. I thought of everything from my favorite gown that burned with the palace, to embarrassing flubs at the circus, to the certain doom of my sister and parents. Not even the circus master’s broken boxes went unmourned. Finally, when my soul had run out of even the silliest memory to cry over, the tears stopped and I pulled away from Hook.
The black turned his head to nudge me, I patted him. “I should probably go get cleaned up,” I told him. He flicked an ear and nibbled my cuff. “Aww, thanks, I’m glad you don’t mind my face.” I sniffed and turned to go back to the house. I hoped I could sneak in—but there was no chance of that. Ayglos was leaning on the fence, waiting for me.
I walked toward him, embarrassed.
“You OK?” asked Ayglos as I slipped through the fence.
“Yes,” I let him pull me in for a hug, “I’m feeling better now.”
“Quill followed you here, then when Namal and I got up he told me where to find you,” explained my brother as we turned together for the house.
“Kind of him.”
“He’s a royal guard,” smiled Ayglos, “There was no way he was letting you disappear.”
“I meant to let me wail in peace—although I suppose our royal guard would have done that, too.” I desperately wanted to rub my face, but my hands were covered in horse-dirt and would only make matters worse. “I must look a sight.”
My brother snorted. “Any knight would leap to right the wrongs that caused your tears.”
I noticed that Ayglos had new clothes, too; fitted deep brown trousers and a shirt that was a dusky cherry tone. Like mine, they were good thick cloth, soft with wear. “You look nice,” I commented as we entered the yard.
“Ironsides is most generous,” replied my brother.
“Ayglos,” I stopped him before we could enter the house, “I was talking with Quill this morning—he said that Narya really is a sorceress—that Shyr Valla and her armies are truly gone without a trace.”
Ayglos turned back to look at me carefully. “He did?”
I nodded. “That is how Dalyn fell: Her armies were—disappeared—poof—and did not come to lift the siege. When no rescue came, the city fell.”
Ayglos considered this for a moment. Before he spoke I knew he had decided on skepticism. “There are any number of things that could have happened to that army,” he said at last. “Perhaps they joined her army,” He held up a hand to stop my protest, “Stranger things have happened. Though the city is a harder thing. Did Quill see it?”
I closed my mouth. Quill hadn’t said he’d seen it himself, technically, though I was sure he had.
Ayglos knew he had won his point. “There now, nothing is certain. There is no use worrying.” He led the way into the house, and had the good grace to take me to the hallway where all our rooms were rather than to the main hall.
He left me at my room and I washed my hands and splashed more water on my face. Not feeling quite ready yet to face the others, I also unbraided and combed my hair before twisting it back into braids and curling these into buns at the back of my head. When I was finished I took a deep breath and walked back to the main hall.
When I arrived my brothers were standing, staring at one of Quill’s men, who was sitting on a bench with a weary slump that implied a hard ride and a recent arrival.
“You’re sure?” asked Namal.
The man nodded. “It looks like they had wagon trouble. The wheels were mismatched like they’d had to get new ones on their way.”
“But you’re sure it’s them?” repeated Ayglos.
The man nodded again.
Just then Quill entered the room from the kitchen door, carrying a tray with a porridge bowl and a mug. His eyes met mine and he nodded to me before going to his man and setting the tray down before him. “Here you are, well earned.”
The scout, for he clearly was, gratefully fell upon the porridge. I walked up to the table and my brother’s noticed me for the first time.
“Zare,” Namal turned to me and held out an arm. I stepped in to his embrace. “Zare, they found our family.”