Aithne helped Clara into her dress. It didn't fit properly: Laira had produced it from somewhere because Clara had fled Vallebrion with nothing but her working dress, which was not fit for the Prince. It was too long, and smelled a little bit of the grave. They hadn't asked where Laira found it.
"Once the audience is over, I'll tell the Prince I want to leave immediately," said Clara. "You make sure the carriage is brought around."
Even though they had been over the plan many times, Aithne nodded. "I'll see it's done, Clara. You worry about nothing except ensuring the Prince believes your story, and getting safely to the courtyard."
"Is Duncan ready?" Again, a question that had been asked and re-asked during the morning.
"He is," said Aithne.
"Is he all right?"
"He will be." Aithne stood in front of Clara and began to pull the laces tight over her bust. Her eyes were shaded by her lashes. Clara put one hand over Aithne's and felt their shaking.
"If something goes wrong, get out of the castle," she said. "Leave me behind if you must. I'm just a girl with sixteen name-days. Who would suspect me of plotting to steal a criminal from the dungeons?"
Aithne shook her head and went back to lacing the bodice.
"I'm serious. If you get caught, your fate will be worse even than Fearghill's. Get as many of the others as you can, and get out of the castle. Get out of High Rock."
"There," said Aithne, stepping back. "You're ready, lass, and you look a picture."
Clara found a smile. They both heard the first bell of morning ringing in the courtyard. "Time for me to be going, then," said Clara.
Aithne nodded. "Off you go, and I will see you in the courtyard when all is done." As Clara went to the door, Aithne added, "And you had better pray to your Prophets all goes well, because I will leave this castle with you and Duncan, or not at all."
"From your lips to the Prophets' ears, then," said Clara, and made her way down to the door of the women's wing.
"Clara of Vallebrion," said the guard on the door, grinning, "bound to see your spider lover? I fear you'll find his accommodations less grand than you're used to."
Clara gritted her teeth. Making her a source of puerile curiosity was the least of Enrico's crimes against her, but it was still galling. "I've been summoned in front of the Prince," she said. "Let me pass."
The guard swept a bow and rapped on the door. It opened inwards, and Clara stomped into the anteroom where an attendant waited to show her to the throne room.
As they walked through the palace, Clara looked around, trying to orient herself. Just in case... she had to escape quickly. She wished Aithne were here with her. Or better--Duncan. Then she felt absurd and selfish. They were the ones in danger, not her. Her task was simply to convince the Prince that there was nothing in her arrival at High Rock but the desire to clear her name. She had to seem foolish and innocent. Not so long ago, she had been both. No longer.
She didn't recognise the hallway they were passing down. Were they not going to the throne room? The attendant walked briskly ahead; Clara didn't want to break the silence by asking.
* * *
Duncan stood in the shadows by the barracks, watching the princeguards come and go. The guard in the dungeon would be changing at the next bell, and there were four men wandering around the barracks making ready. He recognised one of them from yesterday. Ayal, his name was.
Ayal left his companions to go behind the barracks to the latrines to take a piss. Duncan clubbed him with the butt of his sword and took his uniform. One less thing Duncan would have to maintain through the seeming.
He stood over the unconscious guard for a moment, then crouched down, put his sword to the man's throat, and drew it across.
"I don't owe you mercy," he whispered, then rolled the body into the latrine trench, where it sank into the muck. He shucked his tunic and hose and pulled on the dead man's uniform. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply and let the dead man's seeming settle over him. He found the minds of the princeguards and drew them close. Then he turned and strode back into the barracks.
"All set, Ayal?" said the one nearest.
Duncan nodded. When he spoke, they would hear their dead comrade, but he might give himself away by some quirk of speech or accent. Best to speak as little as possible.
"Prophets, I can't wait until we're off dungeon duty," said the guard.
"You'll never be off dungeon duty, Maran," said one of the others. "Not if the Lord of the West Plains has anything to say about it."
"Ah well," said Maran waving his hand. "How was I to know I was plowing a lordling's field? In sooth, the wench was worth it."
Duncan followed Maran and buckled Ayal's sword to his belt. One of the others elbowed him and he jumped. "Apparently the girl swears Maran was the better lay. No accounting for taste, eh?"
"Well, have you seen West Plains?" said the last of the four.
Maran growled. "Come on, lads, let's go."
They trooped out of the barracks and across the practice yard. Duncan walked at the back, reaching out in front of them and drawing each new mind close to his, wrapping the seeming around each one in turn.
Through the bailey to the courtyard. Across the courtyard to the dungeon gate. Duncan threw his shoulders back and mimicked Maran's stance.
Maran said, "Reporting to relieve the guard, sir," to the guard on the gate. The gate guard looked closely at each of them in turn. Duncan kept his eyes forward and his chin high. The gate guard checked his roster, then looked up again.
"Right you are," said the gate guard eventually. "Steward ain't here yet."
Duncan kept his expression neutral. They stood at attention in the courtyard and Duncan counted his breaths.
Then the Steward bustled up, rattling the keys on his chain until he found the one he wanted. Duncan flicked it a look. It was a long, black iron key with four teeth.
With a creak and groan, the gate swung open, then the barred door behind it. On the other side, four princeguards waited, blinking and shielding their eyes against the early morning light.
"Four out," said the Steward, and the guard trooped up the stairs and out into the courtyard, nodding at their comrades. Duncan nodded back. "Four in."
Maran went first, then the other two, then Duncan. Behind them, the door whined shut, and daylight was replaced by flickering, torchlit darkness.
* * *
Another hallway she didn't recognise, then the attendant held aside a tapestry, revealing a wooden door, which she pushed open and gestured that Clara should pass through. On the other side was a grand anteroom with gilded doors at either end. When the attendant shut the door through which they'd passed, it merged into the wallpaper as if it didn't exist.
"Here we are, mistress," said the attendant. "The Prince thought you might prefer to enter through his door, rather than standing with the rest."
"That is very thoughtful," said Clara, releasing a bated breath.
"If you will wait here, the Steward will come and get you when it is time."
Clara nodded, and the attendant bowed and left the way she had come.
Looking around, Clara saw a chair and reached for it, lowering herself down on shaking legs. She drew a long breath in through her nose, closing her eyes and arching her neck.
"Clara of Vallebrion," said a deep voice, and Clara's eyes flew open. Prince Zarinel stood by the door, his hands clasped in front of him, rings glittering. His hooded gaze skirted up and down her body, his expression unreadable. Clara felt a shiver of fear.
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...