The doctor was just finishing when we arrived in the cellar, and Jemin was immediately sent back out to fetch my brothers. My father still looked pale, but now he looked relaxed. His torso was wrapped tightly with cloth and there was an array of little brown bottles sitting on the floor next to him.
“He will be alright with rest and food,” said the doctor, looking up from packing his bags to give me a reassuring smile. “Broken bones don’t mix well with exposure and lack. He should heal respectably with those barriers removed.”
“I am off to observe the horses,” the doctor finished putting away his tools and stood up, slinging his saddle bags over his shoulder. He bowed and headed for the stairs just as Jemin was returning with my brothers.
“An odd excuse,” commented Nadine.
“He doesn’t want to hear what comes next, I expect,” I replied. I wouldn’t miss it for the world
My brothers arrayed themselves to the right of my father, Nadine and I pulled up chairs with our mother on his left. Gravity descended on the cellar and if I closed my eyes I could imagine we were in the golden throne room of Galhara. Jemin stood before the royal semi-circle just as comfortably as he’d played the bumpkin in Gillenwater.
“Tell your news,” said the king, his voice still full of weariness.
“Your Majesties,” Jemin bowed. “Captain Quilleran sends his greetings and hopes you are well. He has spoken with the King of Dalyn on your behalf and the king would like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of Galhara joining the cause. There is a place for you to stay in the city while you are our guests.”
My father nodded gravely. “My family and I are very grateful for the risks Captain Quilleran and his men took on our behalf, we will still honor our original intent to meet with the king. However,” He paused, “I would not have my entire family inside Dalyn’s walls. My son, Namal, will go as my emissary, as before. The rest of us will stay in hiding.”
I felt myself wilt in disappointment.
“Very well, your majesty.” Jemin bowed. “If it pleases you, I will take you and your family to stay at one of the king’s orchards. Comings and goings to this place would be noticed, and this cellar is not a good place to stay in winter.” He’d been prepared for this decision, apparently.
My father dipped his chin in consideration.
“There are but few servants at the orchards this time of year,” continued the burly guardsman, “and they can be told you are a merchant who the king’s men rescued, and at the king’s pleasure you are being nursed back to health.”
“Very well,” agreed my father. “We will go to the king’s orchard.”
Jemin bowed again. “There is one other thing, your majesty. My king especially desires to meet your daughter, Zare, because he has heard rumor of her deeds.”
My family turned to look at me.
“Rumor?” asked my father, his weariness banished.
Jemin’s comfort evaporated and he shifted his feet. “Yes, your majesty. She has been seen fighting the Nether Queen’s soldiers several times in the past fortnight.”
“I wasn’t trying to be seen,” I exclaimed in defense. Except for the drunken act, and the ghost act, and other ghost act…My cheeks burned as every brazen move from the past two weeks jumped up and paraded through my memory. My heavens, I had taken some chances.
Nadine and Ayglos looked amused, Namal looked tired.
“The rumors do not agree on her identity, or even if she is living or ghost,” added Jemin, as if he were trying to help. “She is often accompanied by a host of deadly warriors.”
“That’s us,” Ayglos laughed and gestured to include Namal and Jemin. “Zare’s army.”
“I promise, father, I made sure she was well guarded,” said Namal, turning to Zam the Great.
Guarded? I considered feeling indignant. As if I had not fought in the siege but was some helpless princess to be protected at all times. My mind flicked back to my capture at the Cymerie: I was here because of Quill and Jemin. Indignation could wait for something better.
“I would imagine you did, Namal.” My father shook his head, fixing each of us marauding offspring with a stern look in turn. He wasn’t angry, though. I suppose, with secrecy so entirely lost, desperation forgives risks.
Jemin continued. “The stories are already tavern favorites, though in the court they are only whispered. My king feels this may already be the spark to kindle the heart of the city.”
“Fire is a fickle beast,” my mother spoke and we all turned to her, “the hearts of men even more so.” Her eyes seemed even bluer than usual as she looked at Jemin. “I fear that the hearts of the people are not ready to be stirred. They are like young trees cut down in a violent storm—their wounds are too fresh and still too soaked with the destroying rain to catch flame.”
“There are some who burn already, your majesty,” replied Jemin, “Perhaps they can burn off the rain.”
“Perhaps,” said my mother. One word imbued with hope and weighed down by sadness.
“Zare,” my father turned to me, “You may go to meet King Tarr. As you argued in Gillenwater, you can help Namal blend in.”
“Thank you, father.”
He gave me a small smile that said he knew how disappointed I’d been when I thought I wasn’t going. I blushed.
“Thank you, your majesty.” Jemin bowed. “If it pleases you, we shall make ready with all speed to take you to the orchard, and then bring Prince Namal and Princess Zare into the city.”
My father agreed and dismissed us to prepare. Just like that the throne room façade fell away and we all scurried about packing our meager bags while Jemin prepared the horses. Soon my brothers were helping my father up the stairs and onto Sinker, and Jemin and the doctor were offering their mounts to Mother and Nadine. I swung aboard Hook, and we were off. Jemin set a brisk pace, and I soon persuaded the doctor to ride. The poor fellow had not spent the past few weeks becoming a hardened runner and he lasted only a few minutes. Our journey, however, lasted for hours as Jemin led the way overland. I didn’t see a single road as we crossed field and forest before finally coming to rows of meticulously cultivated fruit trees. At first I thought this meant we were close, but I was wrong, and starting to wonder if we would ever arrive when Jemin slowed. He motioned for us to hang back while he went ahead. In a moment, he returned and led us out onto a dirt road toward a big stone house. House was probably too small a word for the towering stone edifice before us—it was something between a villa and a castle. The windows were far too large to be defensible, but parapets crowned the building. Tall white columns supported a covered entrance. Between us and the house was an iron gate and two liveried guards.