Aithne stood. "I'd best be on my way. I'll be back the halfbell before dinner."
Clara nodded and plunked herself down on the bed. "I'll be here," she said, sighing. Last time she had come here, the women's wing seemed like a sanctuary. This time, it seemed like a cage.
Aithne pulled her veil back up over her hair and was turning to leave when the door opened. Clara leaped upright. It was the steward. Clara's eyes flashed to the keys on his belt. She saw Aithne's do the same.
"Clara of Vallebrion," the Steward intoned.
"Yes?" said Clara, when he didn't continue.
"Prince Zarinel has asked me personally bring you this message. Owing to the unusual circumstances that bring you here, your lack of a suitable chaperone, and the concern that your parents and your betrothed must be feeling at your disappearance, the Prince has graciously agreed to hear your petition during the first session tomorrow. I advise that you be ready by the first bell of morning."
"Yes, s--" Clara bit off the sir. She was this man's superior; even if she might not feel it, she must act it. "Convey my gratitude to the Prince."
The Steward scrunched his lips together and left with the same swooping manner that he had arrived.
Aithne turned to Clara. "Well, well, well," she said. "That man must have gone straight from greeting us to the Prince."
Clara nodded, biting her lip. "Even faster than we thought. You had better go and find Duncan straight away."
* * *
As he was shown to the guard barracks, Duncan looked around him, storing away every detail of the castle. When he was alone, he changed his face: no longer the Vallebrion man, he became a princeguard draped in purple and black, then he strode out of the barracks the way he had come, and into the courtyard.
He drew in front of his mind's eye the map that Siona had sketched of the castle and oriented himself. This hallway led out into the princeguards' practice yard. From there, he would turn right, pass through a gate, and find himself in the small bailey. On one side of him then would be the entrance to the pleasure gardens, which were overlooked by the women's wing. On the other would be the way to the courtyard, and thence the dungeons.
The only way into the dungeons would be by taking the face of someone known and trusted. Today, he would observe their habits, those arriving and departing, and when they did so.
He clamped down hard on his emotions and focused on his breathing. In, and out. The cool air at the back of his nose, expanding his lungs. The warm air expelled again. Any emotion might make him drop his seeming, and then not only would he be doomed, but Clara and Aithne would be in danger as well.
The small bailey. The pleasure gardens. The courtyard. And--there--the way to the dungeons. Duncan looked around the courtyard. There were twenty princeguards standing in pairs, hands resting on their staves. Don't notice me, he thought to them, and took up a position in the shadows.
He'd been watching the rotation of the princeguards for more than a bell, learning their faces and listening to the ways they hailed each other. The steward had been by once, vanishing into the dungeon and reappearing shortly afterwards. He was starting to understand their routine.
Then, the guard on the gate nearest the pleasure gardens said, "Stop, you there."
Duncan went still. His breath clogged his throat. Then he rolled his shoulders and turned around, tilting his head at the speaker.
Who wasn't speaking to him.
Guardians and Prophets.
Instead, a veiled servant stood at the gate. "Where do you think you're going?" said the guard.
The servant shook her head, and Duncan saw a flash of brown hair. "What's going on, Ral?" he said, hurrying over and shrugging on the seeming of a princeguard he had seen leaving the courtyard a few moments earlier.
"Nothing," said Ral. "Just questioning this servant."
"New to High Rock?" said Duncan.
"Yes, sir," said Aithne, keeping her face in shadow.
"Where are you trying to get to?"
"The laundry. My mistress asked me to check whether her dress has been dried and pressed."
Ral crossed his arms. "And who is your mistress?"
"Come on," Duncan interrupted. "I'll take you to the laundry. You can't go this way." He grabbed Aithne's arm and hustled her out of the courtyard, out of Ral's sight, and into the pleasure gardens.
"Good day to you too, Duncan," said Aithne dryly, even though he still wore another's face. "I've come to tell you that Clara has been summoned in front of the prince in the first session. You will need to be ready by then."
So soon. And yet, he could only lurk around the courtyard for so long without acting. And they knew it would be quick. "I will be," said Duncan.
"What have you learned?"
Duncan told her.
"It's as Siona said, then."
Nodding, Duncan said, "This will be tricky, Aithne." When Aithne opened her mouth to respond, Duncan put his hand up. "I can do it." He paused. "And I want to."
"I don't deny it's a good thing we're doing," said Aithne. "Especially for a fullblood who has probably never looked at a halfbreed but he spat at them."
Aithne pressed her lips together as if she were stifling a smile. "All right, then. How can I help you, lad?" she said.
* * *
She had been too nervous to eat dinner, and now her stomach rumbled and kept her awake. Clara lay on her back on the narrow bed, arms folded over her stomach. A bar of moonlight slanted in through the one high window.
Aithne slept on a pallet near the door. Her even breathing suggested peaceful slumber. How could she sleep so easily knowing what tomorrow would bring? But then, perhaps Aithne was more used to danger.
Clara wondered where Duncan was. Was he asleep in the barracks or hiding in the deep shadows of the torchlit courtyard? Was he ready for tomorrow?
* * *
Duncan sat in the lee of a barrel, watching the comings and goings of the courtyard through hooded, drooping, lids. Soon, he would have to go and snatch a few hours' sleep, somewhere secret where nobody would stumble on him with his true face. But for now, he watched, and waited.
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...