My headache returned and my stomach wobbled as I walked purposefully through the halls, head high, having no idea where I was going. I’d never been in this part of the palace before, and didn’t know where I was in relationship to anything else. I didn’t look at any of the people I saw, didn’t dare speak to anyone to ask for directions. I just walked, hoping I’d eventually find something familiar. When I finally came upon the heavy doors to the library, my heart leapt. I quickened my pace. From here, I knew my way to the guest quarters from those weeks spending afternoons in the library. I at last slipped into my old rooms—they were cold and pristine—and went straight to the dressing room. With some effort, I managed to trigger the secret door and step into the dark, cobwebbed passageway. I closed the door behind me and refused my body’s begging to stop. I vaguely remembered the way to the King’s chamber from here and felt my way forward in the blackness. A long, straight, walk. Then a right…a left…a narrow stair, then I was at the hidden door.
I entered the familiar gilded bedchamber. The bedroom was silent, but still warm from the fire dying on the hearth. I found the bell cord and leaned on it again and again until Hesperide walked in, her eyes wary. When she saw me, she clapped her hands over her mouth and started to cry, then she ran forward and pulled me into her arms. She held me so tight that her baby kicked me. I clung to Hess, breathing in her comforting lavender scent and absorbing the fact that I’d made it back.
After several long moments she held me at arm’s length and used her thumbs to wipe the tears off my face. “I will send for them,” she squeezed my shoulders and rushed off.
I went into the sitting room and sank onto the couch. Exhausted.
My stomach hurt. My head hurt. But still…I’d gotten out. Without betraying any of my secrets. The thought filled me with immense satisfaction.
Hesperide returned, carrying a pitcher and cup. “I’ve sent for tea—do you need dinner? You’re so pale—are you alright? What happened?” She sat down on the couch beside me and poured a cup of water for me. I accepted it, but only managed a few small sips. “We were so worried,” she continued, “Everyone is out looking for you as quietly as they can. The guards are sending word that you’re back safe.”
“Mafeisan,” I said, “I woke up in Belledi Valredes rooms.”
Hess went still. “Are you alright?” she asked, more softly this time.
I nodded. “I’m fine, I woke up earlier than they expected.” I summed up the adventure—leaving out the voice that woke me—and Hesperide gave me another hug.
The door opened and Naran walked in carrying a tea tray. I smiled at the red-headed boy. He smiled back, his blue eyes bright. He deposited the tray on a side table, Hesperide gave him a proud look. “Naran was with me when you rang,” she explained.
“Are you well, Miss Meredithe?” asked the child.
“I’m quite well, thank you, Naran. How are you? And how’s Hew?” I replied, trading my water cup for a mug of tea.
“Hew is fast, and has a good nose,” replied Naran. “I’m learning the hunt commands with him.”
“That’s wonderful, I’ll try to come see you soon.”
“Off with you now, Naran, I’ll send for you in a little while,” Hesperide pulled her son close for a kiss before shooing him on his way.
A moment later, Quill stepped in, tension swirling from him like a cyclone. He found my gaze immediately. A breath stretched between us, then he was striding across the room and dropping to a knee at my feet. He reached out his hands to my face, the gentle touch a sharp contrast to the storm in his eyes. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
I shook my head, putting my hands over his, trying to catch the breath that he’d stolen with that look. “I’m fine.”
“I got word you were back just as I was heading to Valredes’ rooms—heard a rumor that you’d been cozy with him at the party…” he trailed off, as if the words burned up before he could get them out. He took my hands and started again, his voice deadly low. “Zare…did he hurt you?”
“No, he didn’t.” I shook my head again, more firmly, then winced from the headache.
Quill caught the wince and narrowed his eyes.
“Honestly, Quill, he said they gave me a drug called mafeisan—it’s a sedative, I remember Boitumelo used it for surgeries when he could get it—I woke up earlier than I should have and I feel awful, but I’m alright. I just need to eat something and sleep it off.” I paused, and allowed myself a wicked grin, “He’ll feel awful when he wakes up, too.”
Quill inspected me; studying me for any sign that I was lying to him. He took in my rumpled clothes, my pale skin, messy hair…I produced the stiletto dagger from my bodice to answer his next question before he could ask. I was still armed.
Finally, almost reluctantly, the cyclone of tension lessened and relief started tickle at his features.
“I promise I’ll tell you all about it. You’ll be proud. But please, sit down, you’re making me tired.”
“I can’t,” he squeezed my hands, then released them and stood up. “I have to go tell the King. And make sure that someone gets word to your brother before he burns down any buildings looking for you.”
“How long was I gone?”
“It’s nearly nine,” said Hess, quietly. “Naran was just about to go to bed.”
“The party wrapped up a couple hours after noon—you never came out of the Ambassador’s rooms that Jemin saw.” Quill turned to go, “He was turned away when he tried to go in to fetch you. We’ve been trying to track you down, since.”