The midnight bell had struck three hours before, releasing the crowd to their own devices. Nearly half the guests had disappeared, some to the bed chambers and some to escape before their parents found them and forced them to the bed chambers. Darshon and Milan laughed together in a respectable corner of the great hall, perhaps a bit too much beneath the influence of the wine. But since the girl was enjoying herself, Tehveor only exchanged a surprised look with Kael, and they left the pair alone.
Remarr sat hunched at the door, weaving his fingers in and out of each other, only raising red-rimmed eyes each time someone came through the doorway. Margaret roamed the room, smiling each time she stepped to a new group and frowning as she glanced toward her husband in the opposite corner.
Rumors spread that the girl who’d told the riddle had escaped unquestioned, and the guards didn’t know how she’d gotten in or out of the castle. The head general hadn’t disappeared during the last few hours. A few of the lords hovered near Kael but the uneventful hours relaxed the fears.
Tehveor was accustomed to working through sleepiness, but the buzzing castle lent its own surreality to the hazy feeling. He wasn’t sure two hours of sleep would make him less tired than staying awake until it was time to go to Sentarra before returning to break the fast and bade farewell to the guests.
He watched the inn girl – Lady Eslaveth – as she responded to her uncle’s summons, leaving the great hall with them. She’d been so curious about his story, that it was strange to have the tables turned. Was she one of the lost Sentarrians?
He wasn’t sure what the symbol on her ring meant, but he’d seen it carved into the walls of the caves. But her eyes had remained the same when she’d confessed she didn’t know what it meant. If she was part of Sentarra, she did not know it.
Instead of following her, he bade Master Remarr goodnight, then following the stream of servants carrying off the dishes until he turned up the stairs. Setta’s room was quiet, so Silvah must have already gone to her chambers, but the crack beneath the door showed with a dim candlelight.
The door jerked open in response to his knock. Setta face was pale, eyes wide as she whispered, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Tehveor answered quickly. “Everything is fine. I had a question.”
Setta opened the door, pulling the robe more tightly around her shoulders. “What?”
Tehveor moved to the desk where a letter to his father sat unfinished. He reached for a clean piece of paper, drawing the line and the squiggle, then handed it to her. “What does this mean? Do you know?”
He didn’t often ask her questions of Sentarra, didn’t share things that happened at the caves unless she asked. Even now, guilt twisted his stomach as he watched her cheeks grow a shade paler. She wet her lips.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s the sign of the seal. But there are too many guesses to say. Some say that it’s a snake with a sword going through, somewhat like the Erish flag. Others believe it’s a tunnel that traveled beneath a river. Why?”
Tehveor swallowed. “One of the girls out there has it on a ring. She said it was the last thing her father gave to her before he died, but she doesn’t know what it means.”
Setta’s face paled so quickly that he stepped forward in case she lost her balance. As it was, she set a hand on the desk. “What girl?”
“Eslaveth LonCrae,” he said. “She’s here with her uncle.”
“Eslaveth’s here?” she whispered.
“You know her?” he asked.
“I knew her when she was a girl,” she whispered, then hissed, “Don’t tell anyone at Sentarra.”
“Is she not part of Sentarra?” Tehveor asked.
Setta rubbed her arm, looking away as she always did when contemplating what to tell him and what to keep to herself. He wanted to demand she reveal the entire story, but he waited, watching the fear mount in her eyes. Finally, she spoke softly. “Do you remember the night I came to take you from the Lesonna’s estate? I told you a man was supposed to meet us.”
“That was Eslaveth’s father,” she said. “He was bringing the ring to you.”
His mind sorted facts, trying to make connections, then rejecting them. “But he didn’t come?”
She shook her head. “He was captured by the king’s men the way we were. He died from a fever a few weeks later, but I didn’t know what had happened to the ring. I assumed the king found and disposed of it.”
Tehveor sat on the bed as the entire world dipped and rose around him. “He died in the dungeon?” he asked.
“Yes,” Setta nodded.
Eslaveth was Maraun’s daughter. He’d killed her father, but his mother didn’t know. No one knew, except the king, and he suddenly had his answer as to why Galephy had chosen to send him on the task. He’d destroyed the one who had sought to save him.
He let out a slow breath, pulling his face into the mask he usually saved for the king. But Setta paced, her whispering becoming agitated, “He didn’t want Eslaveth growing up in Sentarra. If she joined later, he wanted it to be her choice, not something that was foisted on her. Like I wanted for you. Sentarra is a very dangerous and confusing place for a child.”
Tehveor swallowed, wondering if it wasn’t a confusing place for an adult as well. “Do you think Fate will force her?”
Setta stilled, eyeing the stars out the window. “I don’t know. Fate may draw her, but if she doesn’t learn the secrets, she won’t have to guard them. But if she doesn’t…” She nibbled her lip, tucking her eyebrows in thought. “If she’s Mauran’s daughter, she may be the second princess. She may not have a choice, but it’s best to let Fate draw her. If you tell anyone, they will force her.”
The second princess. If she was the second princess, she was the one meant to protect him. She was possibly the one foretold would marry him, though that could also be the third.
Tehveor pushed his temples, warding off a headache. “Are you sure?” he whispered.
“No,” Setta answered. “Honestly, Tehveor. I’m not sure of anything anymore. But you need do nothing. If she is meant to be in Sentarra, Fate will draw her, and she will not be able to stay away. None of the guardians can stay away. It won’t let them.”
He wondered if she was thinking of herself – of leaving her husband to go to the country when she’d rather stay in Erilerre. His stomach churned as he stood. “I won’t tell her anything,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone she has the ring.”
But he did need to tell her not to show that ring to anyone.
He kissed his mother’s head and slipped from the door, feeling the weight of Mauran’s death warring with the blackness that crept around the corners of his mind. Sleep. He needed to sleep. The secrets would be easier to bear in the morning.
He wouldn’t go to Sentarra. He was too tired to pretend there wasn’t a princess hiding among the Erish, and there weren’t Sentarrians hidden among the caves. What had happened to the man’s body after they dragged it from the prison? Had they buried it with the other prisoners in unmarked, shallow graves? Had they dumped it into a river to be carried downstream and retrieved by a more compassionate soul? Had they sent it to the keeper of the old chapels to be laid to rest in the back of the churchyard with the other strangers? He didn’t know, any more than he knew the Fate of Everra.
He scanned his room for Gregorn or Galephy or whoever else felt it was their right to enter for confrontations, but it was empty, and he turned the key in his lock. Even if the king summoned him tonight, he wouldn’t answer. Someone else could take the aftermath of the girl’s warning and escape – though he supposed he was most responsible for that as well. A warning for Kael, yes, but more a warning for him. He hadn’t missed the crystal vial she set on the floor, nor the indifference that the Sentarrians felt entitled to show toward Kael.
He stretched across his bed, working the compartment in the headboard, to pull out the folded paper. The edges were still stiff because he hadn’t read it since he’d stuffed it in the back as a child. His handwriting was worse than he remembered, and he huffed a laugh, remembering how proud he’d been of it at the time. How clever he thought he was carrying messages between husband and wife. How obedient he’d been, how, even knowing that Galephy was not a kind man, he’d trusted the lie.
Did Everra still think the cause with worth it? What other words would have passed between the man and wife, had they not been filtered through the boy they had sought to protect? Should he give it to their daughter, perking curiosity perhaps best laid to rest? It was wrong, wasn’t it, to keep her father’s last words from her when she so cherished his last gift – which wasn’t a gift at all. It was a concealment by a man who must have realized he would be taken. Perhaps it was Fate at work, passing the ring from one protector whose life was nearing an end, to the next whose life was only beginning. Did Fate know that Mauran would soon die? If it knew Tehveor’s future, did it know all of theirs? If so, why didn’t it stop it? Why didn’t it warn him, or drop a torch, or cause Mauran to be wary? If it was capable of protecting Tehveor, why didn’t it protect them all? Then again, it never had protected him within these walls.
He rested his head back on the pillow, wondering when the king’s next summons would be and how long it would take to become king, free from tyranny altogether.
He tucked it into an envelope, lit the sealing wax above and watched the drips pool on the page. Then reached for the Castallion family seal – a more simple version of Galephy’s elaborate version which held so much power. The sword pierced the snake, whose tongue forked out. He studied it, wondering if Eslaveth would place her own seal next to it and compare them. Wondering if the Erish king of old had sat next to the Sentarrian king and collaborated on the designs, the way that he sat next to Kael helping to plan out the day-to-day things the boy had been allowed to take over.
And then he opened his eyes and wondered how the sky had lightened so quickly, how he’d nodded off in his clothing, sleeping so hard he’d drooled into the blanket because his head had never actually made it to the pillow. He couldn’t go to Sentarra this morning if he wanted.
He rubbed his face. Breakfast would be informal, taken whenever people entered the dining hall, probably another practice the Kathonian royalty would consider barbaric. He debated as he dressed, whether he should tuck the envelope into his pocket, stash it away in the bed frame, or burn it and take away his choice forever.
But his own father’s letters sat tied in a bundle and his conscience smote him. He had taken away her life with her father. She deserved what little he could give back.
He found her in the relic room, studying the elaborate pages of the first law book ever recorded back when the Erish still spoke T’erish because they didn’t have a language of their own.
“Good morning,” he said softly.
She spun, taking a sharp breath, then cocked her head to hide a smile. “Good morning,” she answered playfully. “Returned from your breakfast in Kathonia?”
He’d forgotten he’d teased her about the ride and he laughed. “Not today.” He nearly invited her to dine with him, but it seemed presumptuous to make such an offer to the orphan he’d created. Besides, the less he drew attention to her, the better. He held out the envelope before he could change his mind.
“I wanted to give this to you,” he said. “I realized last night…” he trailed off, amending. “I realized who you were.”
Her head cocked deeper. “Who am I?” she asked.
“Who’s daughter you were, I mean,” he amended. “Your father wrote this. He was – in the prison – when I was young.”
Her eyes flickered to the paper, but it was a moment longer before she stepped closer to take it. “My father…” She pulled the paper free, and he fought the urge to snatch it back. Her eyes circled the lines before she shook her head. “How did you get something that belonged to my father?”
“I wrote it for him,” he said. “To take to your mother, well, that is I wrote her replies. Your father knew how to write, of course.”
He was botching this, but Eslaveth just shook her head and whispered, “I can’t read either.”
“Oh.” Tehveor hesitated, glancing down the empty hallway before he retrieved the paper, running his eyes over the words and refusing to wonder where the woman was now. He couldn’t do more than whisper the words if he’d tried, but he read the woman’s message, realizing how easily it could have been written to her daughter. “I wish I could see you. I want you to know that I’m fine now. The cause was worthy, and I am no longer fearful of what may happen to us. I will always love you.”
He wasn’t sure he should even try to read the better handwriting of the lord who’d died before he finished writing it. Eslaveth’s hand was already over her mouth, already in tears, already reaching with her free hand to take the paper back from him.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and she looked at the handwriting like it was her mother’s. She sniffed, then asked, “What did my father write?”
“He just wrote to be strong,” Tehveor answered. Mauran’s other sentence wasn’t finished, and he didn’t know what the man had intended to say.
Her eyes lifted to meet his, and it was strange to have someone look into them instead of at them. “Do you know what happened to them?”
Her words were half spoken, half-mouthed as though she wasn’t even sure she wanted to ask the question.
Tehveor swallowed. He lowered his eyes to the floor as he gave the careful and incomplete answer, “His Majesty had him killed. I don’t know what happened to your mother. She may have been released. I don’t think she was there long after.”
Eslaveth shook her head, tracing the words. “She’s not alive,” she said. “She would have come. But – do you know why my father died?”
If he’d been looking for an opening to tell her the secrets, this was it. But he didn’t know why Mauran died. How the king had discovered the man was going to help them, and why he would even care, beyond his customary delight in cruelty.
“No,” he whispered.
“But you kept their letter?” she asked. “Why?”
Perhaps he shouldn’t have given it to her. Her inquisitive mind was going to turn over all pieces of his story and find the gaps.
“I was there,” he said, “when, well at the end. I had the letter, but I was scared and ran.”
“Ayth,” she breathed, as her eyes roved back and forth. “You couldn’t have been very old.”
“I was nine,” he said.
She nodded. “I was eight. I ran too. When they came for him.”
But… wasn’t Mauran coming for him? Was she riding with him? Tehveor stared a moment, trying to phrase the question, but voices reminded them both that they were no longer children connected by a man’s journey in and out of the castle.
Eslaveth folded the paper, covering it with her hands. “Thank you for giving this to me. They burned our house that day. I don’t have anything else.”
He winced through the wave of guilt as he nodded toward her. There was more, but he closed his lips and offered her an arm, wondering what things would be like if she were the second princess and they did marry. Intrigue flickered, but something pushed it down. Her father didn’t want her to know the secrets. And she watched him with open curiosity, lacking the troubled ponderings that showed in Shannondant’s face or the fear that leaked through his mother’s voice.
Tehveor turned his head toward the breakfast room. He’d already altered the course of her life once. He wouldn’t do again.