Quill and Jemin left at dawn after showing us where the well was. “You will be safe here for the time being,” said Quill. “The road is that way,” he pointed, “stay away from it.” There was another hedge of happy cypress trees, and who knew how many fields, between us and the road, but we promised to stay away. “One of the men you know will come back in a day or so to bring you supplies—a doctor if I can manage it—and hopefully word about an audience for you with the king.”
They headed back the way we’d come yesterday. I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to corner Jemin before they left, but that was forgotten quickly enough. After checking on the horses I went back to bed and slept for several more hours. In fact, most of the family did. For the next two days we barely stirred from the hideaway, even when we were awake. Our most daring act was on the morning of the third day: we built a fire to warm bath water and toast waybread.
Then I convinced Nadine to come explore the villa with me while Ayglos and Namal were sparring in the old great hall. We hadn’t gone far down the destroyed hallway from the kitchen when Nadine pulled me into an alcove and down beside her on an old window seat. “Now,” she commanded, “We are alone. Tell me the whole story—from beginning to end.”
I told her more than I’d told anyone: Starting with the counsel in the leopards’ wagon, the taming of Hook for Quill to ride. Then about finding Quill’s men—and finding out he was their captain–going back to Gillenwater with Jemin and the Tryber showing me the way into the garrison.
“We were already gone,” she put in ruefully.
I told her about the soldiers leading me to the girls, my impulsive intervention, and the ensuing daring escape. Nadine gasped at all the right parts and urged me to keep going when I paused at the homecoming. “We walked for days and days,” I replied, waving my hand. “First to rejoin the men, then to get as far away as we could, then to rescue you. We left the girls with Gabe and Balleck at the house of a friend, they’ll be going to rejoin the circus as soon as they’ve rested.”
“I bet Ayglos and Namal were upset you didn’t leave them any heroics to do in Gillenwater,” laughed Nadine, tossing a look toward the old great hall.
I laughed, “Probably.”
“What about Balleck?” asked my sister.
“What about him?” My cheeks warmed. I didn’t want to talk about Balleck.
“What did he think?” Nadine arched a brow, well aware she’d hit on something.
“He was glad enough to have Olena safe,” I replied.
Nadine studied me, looking for the things I hadn’t said. “What did he think when he found out who you were? Since I assume that secret didn’t last long past that captain recognizing father.”
I bit my lip. “He didn’t know what to think. Especially once we were with Quill’s men and I started doing dangerous things.” I paused, then charged ahead—Nadine would drag it out of me eventually anyway. “Before we left to stop your caravan he asked me to go with him when they went back to the circus.”
Nadine sat back, her blue eyes widening, “Go with him? Just to be safe, or forever?”
I shifted. Technically he hadn’t said, but, “Both. I think.”
“Oh, Zare, and you said no.”
“I couldn’t say yes; my place is here.” I looked out the window. There had been glass panes once, but the jagged pieces that remained were blackened from the fire. “I can’t leave you, and I can’t leave the fight.”
Nadine grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Do you think…that ended it? Until those soldiers came I was really expecting him to ask father about courting you before the year was over.”
I thought about the conversation Balleck and I had in the barn. “Oh yes, the possibility of us is gone.” The thought made me sad, but not as sad as I would have expected. I turned to Nadine, realizing with some surprise the fullness of what she’d said, “You expected me to marry a circus performer? So soon?”
“Well,” defended Nadine, spreading her hands, “Galhara burned, we were hiding, our dethroning seemed rather permanent. The circus wasn’t a bad life, you and Ayglos in particular were quite at home there. It didn’t feel so farfetched at the time.”
“Would you go back if you could?” I asked.
“To the circus?” Nadine thought about it. “I don’t know where else we’d go.”
“We could go anywhere.”
“Not really, we’d have to find a way to eat.”
I leaned against the wall and regarded her. “You would probably be married to what’s-his-name now if we hadn’t been besieged.” Even with the fear of the Nether Queen throwing all sorts of strange kinks into the chess game of marriage alliances, Nadine had been engaged. I didn’t think they’d been in love, but he was likeable prince from Charpolia, the city across the bay from Galhara.
Nadine looked out the window. “Yes,” she said slowly, “I probably would.”
“And I would be wading through suitors, complaining to you about the process,” I added.
This brought a smirk to my sister’s face, her eyes flicked back to me for a moment. “As entertaining as that would have been, I don’t mind missing that.”
“If this rebellion succeeds, we’ll be going back to that.”
Nadine turned back to me, “Would you rather have Balleck?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. Instead I turned back to the window and starred out at the overgrown lane and the cypress trees. I had already given up the circus, and I didn’t have a deep desire to go back. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted every aspect of royalty now that I’d tasted life away from it.
Just then two heads bobbed into view on horseback and I heard Hook whinny in greeting.