Sunlight was streaming through the wall slits by the time Quill sat down in front of me at the table, the blonde woman coming to stand behind him. In the meager daylight, he looked haggard, and his dark clothes were discolored by dried blood. But his eyes were clear as he regarded me.
I was deliriously tired, but I gave him a small smile before asking, “Where are you hurt?” The same question I’d asked each one of Trinh’s knights. I was also running low on supplies now, since most of Trinh’s men had had wounds to bandage. Nothing that wouldn’t heal. Nothing too horrific. Namal had been at my side the entire time. He’d kept the basin full of clean water and helped anytime I’d needed another hand. Even with the knights who’d needed stitches, though both of us had struggled not to retch through the entire process. I would never travel anywhere without a doctor in tow ever again.
“My soul,” Quill replied brightly, then leaned forward, “Which will heal eventually. But, my lady, it’s your turn for treatment.”
I blinked at him. Then looked down at my mauled armor and the blood long dried on my arm. I’d locked the pain behind some door and forgotten. As if it had been lying in wait for Quill’s cue, the lock shattered and my chest began to ache. My arm, which I had been using all evening, became leaden, and I too weak to lift it.
“He’s right,” said my brother, his voice tender. “Let’s get that armor off.”
I tried to lift my arm so he could reach the buckles of the breastplate, but instead, a whine slipped out of me and my arm stayed in place on the table. Quill was on his feet immediately, gently picking up my arm and holding it out of Namal’s way. Then, when Namal had the breastplate free, Quill unbuckled the vambrace.
The blonde stepped forward, then, and got the other vambrace off. Then she growled at the two men, “Go tend the fire.”
I didn’t totally register why until she looked pointedly at my shirt. “Oh.” I swiveled toward the wall and reached with my good arm to start tugging at the hem. She helped pull the thick shirt over my head, peeling it off my arms. I whimpered as it tore from the dried blood. Even with my tolerance for cold, I shivered. The gold pendant with the sailing ships hung just below the massive purple bruise on my sternum.
The blonde inspected bruise. Her eyes flicked to mine, they were gray, I noticed, as she said, “Sorry,” and prodded the bruise.
I yelped and recoiled, slamming her hand away instinctively.
“Was that a blinding, ice pick like, stabbing pain?”
I hissed at her, covering my chest with my hand. “No. Just a sprawling, burning pain. A little warning next time.”
She pursed her lips. “Maybe cracked, definitely bruised.” Then she swirled her fingers in my pot of salve and, prying my hand away, applied the salve liberally to the bruise.
“We don’t have any more of that,” I objected through gritted teeth.
“Shush,” she ignored me and reached for a linen shirt she must’ve brought over with her. “Put this on so you don’t freeze.”
It was even worse when she cleaned the gash on my arm. She wasn’t exactly gentle, and I hissed and snapped at her. She hissed and snapped back. When she started threading a needle I leapt up from the chair, knocking it over with my haste.
The blonde rolled her eyes, “Don’t be a baby.”
“Baby?” I snapped, “You’re a butcher.”
“Sit down before you bleed out,” she retorted.
“I wouldn’t be bleeding again if you weren’t a brute.”
She spread her hands, “Do you want to die from gaping wounds?”
She snorted and resumed threading. Energy leached from me and I picked up the chair with my good hand and sank back into it. I felt Namal’s hands on my back as I set my arm on the table and then my forehead. I felt the prick of the needle, and then the pull of the thread through my flesh. Then the world pulled away into darkness. Later, I was vaguely aware of being set down in blankets among warm bodies.
Without opening my eyes, I could sense that the atmosphere in the cellar was entirely different. There were tiny voices laughing and little feet pounding around the room. Hew woofed. Above that, I could hear the murmur of men’s voices. Namal and Trinh. The cellar was filled with the smell of wood smoke and dog. I opened an eye. The princes were at the table deep in conversation. There were still several knights sleeping around me in the blanket nest. The children, however, appeared to all be awake and chasing Hew around the room.
I opened my other eye and pushed myself upright with my good arm. My muscles were stiff. The fire had died, or been put out, long ago, and the light seeping through the slits painted warm stripes along the ceiling. It must be late afternoon. Hesperide was sitting in the nest, her back against the wall, the baby nursing at her breast. She was looking at me now, a smile on her lips, though her eyes were rimmed with red and her cheeks were wet.
Without a thought, I crawled over the blankets and the legs of knight to wrap my arms around her and the baby. She freed a hand to grasp me and bury her face in my shoulder. We sat in silence, clutching each other until the baby started to wiggle in protest. I pulled away and peered at the infant. Hess sniffed and wiped her face. “Thank you for coming for us,” she said, her voice watery.
I touched the full head of dark hair on the baby. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save Tarr.” I replied, soul aching.
Hess shook her head. “You all are going to have to get over that.” Her eyes met mine, “Quill told me what you did for him, pulling him out of the ballroom. He’s the last of my family, you know. Thank you.”
Heat climbed my neck to my cheeks and I looked down. Then I said, “Have you named the baby?”
A real smiled bloomed on Hesperide’s face. “Tarryn Nelia Kegan.”
Tarryn for her father. Nelia for the ghost who’d inspired her father. Nelia—for me. I smiled, too. “She’s perfect.” Shifting, I set my back against the wall next to Hess. “How long have you been in the nest?”
“Hours. I got cold over there by myself,” she nodded at the walled off part of the cellar. “Athrynel and Quill stayed with me, but once I was cleaned up and had slept off the first edge of exhaustion we moved over here. Much warmer. More blankets.”
“Did you know Trinh’s knights…before?” I asked.
She nodded. “Not well—we were years apart in age. I looked up to them.”
Hew trotted past, the children giggling behind him.
“We’re leaving tonight,” said Hess softly, “Dividing the children up and making family units so we can blend in.”
“To Magadar?” I asked, feeling my heart twist at the thought of separation.
She nodded. “For now, at least.” Tarryn was asleep, and Hess gently removed her from her breast and settled her in her lap, shrugging her tunic back down. “I have never left Dalyn before, but I feel as though Magadar might not be far enough to keep them out of her reach. Trinh wanted to go to the Chancellor for sanctuary—but I have no interest in that—why would they harbor the mistress of a dead king? A mistress who stole his heirs?”
“You were his queen,” I said softly, “You know that. It’s not like you’re without a title if you told them who you really are.”
Hess touched her baby’s head. “My title was lost, my lands given to another. I am nothing and no one—except a mother with children to protect.”
I didn’t reply. My thoughts had turned to my own mother, who was likely in a tavern on the Market Road with my father and sister waiting for news of what happened at the Midwinter Ball. When word came of that utter disaster, they would proceed to Magadar themselves, trusting we would follow. They would seek out the shattered remains of our court in the circus. I didn’t know what father would do after that. Would he go to the Chancellor of Magadar? Or would we vanish into the circus forever? I turned the idea over and over in my head—like a little orb filled with bright tents and colorful people I could turn in my hand and watch them dance and spin. I tried to imagine myself inside the orb. Tried to imagine spinning fire with Balleck or exploring a new town with the acrobats. It didn’t fit, didn’t feel right. Not anymore.
Hew bounded onto the pile of blankets and shoved an exuberant face into mine. I barely got my hands up in time to ward off his tongue as the children chasing him threw themselves onto both of us. The other knights remaining in the nest stirred, the one I’d crawled over moaned. I startled, recognizing Quill’s voice. His arm snaked out from under the blankets and tackled two of the children, who shrieked with delight. Another knight groaned in protest.
Namal and Trinh stopped their conference at the table and turned to watch as the blankets full of people dissolved into a thrashing mess of arms, legs, squealing children and a barking hound. Hess sucked back into the wall, Tarryn tucked in close, watching with amusement. I laughed, fending off Hew and coming face to face with the blue eyes and red hair of Naran. I caught Naran and tickled his ribs, he howled before thrashing to freedom—only to be captured by Quill, who was much harder to escape. When Naran at last tumbled away, he was grinning ear to ear, eyes sparkling. Laughter ached, but it also renewed. I knew that I would not stay in Magadar.