"We will have to plan this carefully," said Aithne. "It's not so simple as Duncan strolling into the castle, taking on the Steward's face and breaching the dungeons."
"Taking on his face," Siona echoed. Her voice had a dazed tone. Evidently the knack was not widespread among the Shayn.
"We'll need to see the layout of the castle," Aithne continued, "and observe the princeguards' schedule."
"No," said Duncan.
Aithne gave him a blank look. "Hm?"
"No we," he said. "I can slip into the castle unseen. You cannot." His heart rattled in his chest. He didn't want to leave Aithne behind. He didn't want her in danger, either.
"True enough," said Aithne, crossing her arms. "But how do you propose to slip out again? Burdened with a man who will most likely be injured and starved?"
"How do you?" Duncan stuck out his chin.
"You need a cover," said Clara quietly. "How if you came in as my guard and my attendant?"
No. Duncan shook his head twice. "No."
Clara gave him a steady look. "You are not taking this risk alone," she said.
* * *
"Be still, child," said Aithne, putting her hand over Clara's, which was drumming on the sill of the carriage they'd borrowed from a hostelry in the town.
Clara looked over at the older woman. They'd dyed the white out of her hair with walnut dye. Without the spidered hair, and with her head downcast as befit a servant, Aithne's eyes were close enough to brown to pass for People. Duncan sat on the box guiding the horses. Out of sight. The hosteller had given him some lessons in driving a carriage, but it had been a bumpy ride up to the castle nonetheless.
She heard the princeguards call halt. "Who goes there?"
Duncan's response: "This carriage conveys Clara, heiress of Vallebrion, who wishes for an audience with his blessed majesty."
A silence from the guard. Then a head, appearing at the window. "Mistress Clara," said the man. A knowing smile revealed a missing front tooth. "I'm surprised your father let you out of his sight."
Clara frowned at him. "My errand is urgent," she said, and made a shooing motion.
The guard whistled and stepped away. "Enter and be welcome to High Rock, mistress," he singsonged. "I don't suppose the Prince will keep you waiting overlong."
As Duncan coaxed the horses forward, Clara and Aithne shared a look. "Your fame precedes you," said Aithne.
"Or infamy," said Clara, leaning her hand on her chin.
When they presented themselves, the Steward threw his hands up. "I do not just have bedrooms lying empty waiting for every noble in the kingdom," he said, consulting his ledger, "but I suppose I can find room for you and your servant in the Women's Wing. Your guard will be quartered in the barracks."
"Of course," Clara murmured. "And--I would like to beg an audience with the Prince. When it is convenient for him."
The Steward raised his eyebrows and said, "I will see that his majesty is informed of your wishes."
"Thank you," said Clara.
"Can I advise the Prince of your petition?"
"No petition," said Clara. She took a deep breath, then continued, "I come only to reassure the Prince of my loyalty and that I never entertained Lord Fearghill's designs on Vallebrion. In fact--Lord Enrico and I are to be wed. That is all."
The Steward nodded and gestured to an attendant to show them to the Women's Wing.
By the time Clara looked across at Duncan, he was already in his way down another corridor. When they were in the Women's Wing and the door of Clara's room was shut behind them, Clara turned to Aithne and said, "I don't suppose Prince Zarinel will dally in summoning me."
"True enough," said Aithne, folding herself onto the wooden chair in one corner of the room. "I'll be on my way to find Duncan after I rest my feet."
"Will you be safe? You can't disguise yourself... can you? Do you have an, ah..."
"A knack?" Aithne supplied. "Not really. There are a few of us touched by the Guardians in the way Duncan is, but not many, and not as strongly."
"Us? You mean Shayn?"
"I mean halfbloods." Aithne tilted back on the chair. "No pureblood Shayn has more than an echo of the knack."
"Why is that?"
"There has been scant chance to bend our minds to that question," said Aithne. "Perhaps it is something to do with the mixing of bloodlines. Or perhaps the Guardians pity the halfbloods more than most."
"Hm." Clara considered this. There was nothing in Teaching that applied. The Prophets were only supposed to care about the fates of their named folk, but she thought merciful Thandi might defy his father and brother and reach out to tip the scales in favour of the nameless and powerless.
Aithne continued, "Fortunately, I was raised Shayn-side and share Siona's skills in the Shayn ways of fighting and stealth."
"Then I won't fear for you," said Clara. "I've seen Siona fight. And I half expected her to have snuck in and be waiting for us."
"She wasn't pleased to be left behind," said Aithne with a half-smile. She gave Clara a searching look. Clara shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Finally, Aithne said, "You're a brave lass, Clara. And kind."
Clata tched. She clasped her hands in front of her and rocked backwards.
Aithne stood. "I'd best be on my way. I'll be back by the halfbell before dinner."
YOU ARE READING
The Forest's HeartFantasy
Vallebrion is one of the old places -- a forest where the old and new worlds lie side by side. Clara has grown up walking its shadowed paths and green glens, and one day the man she takes as husband will be Master of Vallebrion and the mysteries tha...