as if she were seeing a friend

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The throne room was at the heart of the palace. It consumed the full height of three storeys, and had no windows save those high on the walls near the roof. Below that, the grey stone walls were covered with tapestries and damask drapes.

To one end was a dais set under a purple damask canopy. On deep black velvet sat a gilded throne, currently empty. Above it were carved into the stone the figures of Aelas, Inne and Thandi. The sculptor had done quite an extraordinary job bringing the figures to life. Aelas in his long robes watched with a fatherly, detached air. Inne tilted his head as if weighing up the merits of the petition. Thandi leaned out from his plinth as if caught up in proceedings.

The room was filled with courtiers and petitioners, all pressing together to avoid spilling from the carpet onto the black-and-white marble floor between them and the dais. Nobody was allowed to approach that close to the throne without the Prince's permission.

Clara stayed close by her aunt's side as they were ushered towards the front of the throng. To one side of them was Lord Enrico. To the other, Clara realised, was Lord Fearghill, a yellow ribbon wound and bowed around the shoulder laces of his tunic.

Her ribbon. She had given it to him in a moment's pitying impulse, and had regretted it since. He had tried to draw her into a blasphemy. It seemed dangerous to be linked to a Shayn. But he was Prince Zarinel's favourite, and he had been kind to her. Had seemed to understand how frightened she was. Had known Vallebrion forest was her sanctuary.

He gave her the shadow of a smile and she nodded back to him. Seeing him here felt as if she were seeing a friend. And she desperately needed friends.

A short blast of the trumpet and the throng stilled, then, jostling for position, they all dropped to their knees.

Prince Zarinel entered the room and sat down. "Oh, rise," he said.

When Clara stood, she caught his hooded eyes on her, then they flickered past. A fickle man, she had heard the women say. One whose attention never stayed on one pursuit for long. Unpredictable and as likely to be merciful as cruel. An uncertain friend, but an unswerving enemy.

Not a man to cross. Clara could feel shivers running up and down her spine. The room had taken on a dreamlike quality.

"Gilly, have you found yourself a sweetheart?" said the prince. "Step forward and explain yourself."

Lord Fearghill stepped onto the marble and sank to his knees. "No sweetheart, your grace."

"Of course not," said the prince lazily. "Such a good hunter you are, Gilly, but there's no quarry for you here. Whence the yellow ribbon, then?"

Clara went still. Would he disclose its origin? What would happen if he did?

"An affectation," said Fearghill, "nothing more. If you dislike it, my prince, then let it be gone and no more said." He remained kneeling. Clara studied the set of his shoulders.

Prince Zarinel tilted his head. Then he barked with laughter. "An affectation," he chortled. "What we cannot find a woman to do, we must do with our own hand, eh?"

The courtiers caught on. Laughter around the room—enjoying a joke at the Shayn's expense. They always laughed for the Prince's sake of course, but this time, they laughed for their own sakes as well.

Clara felt iron settle into her spine. She looked up at the prophets again. Aelas and Inne detached and indifferent, but in the shadows of Thandi's expression Clara imagined she saw regret.

"Steward," said Prince Zarinel. "What is the order today?"

The Steward handed him a roll of paper, which he scanned down. Fearghill rose and backed onto the carpet. He didn't look at Clara.

"Clara of Vallebrion," said the prince. "Step forward."

Clara almost stumbled off the carpet. "O-of course, your grace."

The prince looked up, eyebrows raised. Behind her, folk rustled their brocade. Clara bit her lip. Don't speak unless invited, Amarante had told her.

"You were at the tournament," he said.

Should she respond? Clara clasped her hands behind her back.

Prince Zarinel's eyebrows hitched higher. "Well?"

"Yes, your grace."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Yes, your grace."

"Which parts?"

"The..." Feeling caught in a lie, Clara hesitated. "The skill of your knights, your grace."

"Hm." He looked at the scroll. "You're Maitea's daughter."

"I am, your grace."

"How fares your mother?"

"She is well, your grace."

Zarinel's gaze roamed up and down her body. "You have a look of her."

"I am honoured you think so, your grace."

"You are," said the Prince. "The way I remember her, there are few her equal. Such a pity she could not come to High Rock to see your vow."

"Your grace, I am here on her parents' behalf, " said Lord Enrico. Clara almost skittered away from the sound of his voice behind her. "I escorted Clara here from Vallebrion."

"How good of you, Lord Enrico," said Prince Zarinel. Apparently favourites were allowed to speak without being addressed.

"In fact, I seek to wed Clara," said Enrico. "Would your grace give his consent?"

No. Clara bit her lip so hard she thought she must have drawn blood. No.

Zarinel leaned back, brushing his free hand down his beard. "It is for Lady Maitea and Lord - ah - Alan, to give consent, not me," he said.

"But..." The room stilled. Zarinel raised his eyebrows. Enrico bowed. "As your grace says." 

Clara's legs almost gave out under her. She felt tears welling in her eyes as she looked at Prince Zarinel with unexpected gratitude.

Zarinel's next words stole away her relief: "Will you take Clara home again, Lord Enrico?"

Enrico bowed. "If you wish it, my prince."

"I—I do not wish it," said Clara. It felt as if the words had climbed up her throat and burst out on their own.

There were shocked murmurs behind them.

"Quiet," hissed Enrico.

Zarinel leaned forward on his throne. "Do you not?" he said. "A girl must have a champion. The roads between here and your forest can be dangerous."

"I know, but I—I..." Feeling trapped, Clara cast her eyes around the throne room. She saw one face after another, tapestry, marble visage, a yellow ribbon...

"Would Lord Fearghill be able to escort me instead?" she said.

The murmurs grew. The crowd rustled. Clara half-heard a couple of startled laughs begin and then fade.

"Lord Fearghill?" said Prince Zarinel. He brushed his hand down his beard. "Gilly, you've an admirer after all."

A long silence, in which Clara's hopes and fears crashed against each other in her mind.
Then Fearghill stepped forward. "The young lady simply wants an escort who can defend her from danger rather than an escort who is the source of the danger." 

"You insolent, sniping little spider," Enrico hissed.

Zarinel leaned back and shrugged. "Gilly, are you willing?"

"I am," said Fearghill.

Waving his hand as if shooing away a conversation that had lost its interest, Zarinel said, "Then I suppose we have tarried long enough, and I should hear your vow, Clara of Vallebrion."

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