"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.
"Prince Zarinel," she said, tumbling from the chair and into a deep obeisance on the marble floor.
"We did not look to see you back so soon. You left our city with great haste last time."
Clara nodded, studying the veins in the marble.
"Rise and speak," said Zarinel.
Clara heard his robes rustle. She sat up, then climbed to her feet. "Thank you, your majesty."
"Well?" Zarinel raised his eyebrows. His hands were tucked into has sable-trimmed sleeves. He seemed to take up all the air in the room.
"Your majesty, I... when we returned to Vallebrion, and then... Lord Fearghill was arrested, I learned it was because your majesty believed that something untoward was occurring between us. I wished to immediately plead to your majesty my loyalty and innocence of this charge." As she spoke, Prince Zarinel advanced toward her. She took one step backwards, then forced herself to stand her ground.
"Why are you here without a guard, without escort or chaperone?" said Zarinel, now uncomfortably close. Clara kept her gaze fixed on his collar until he put his hand on her chin and brought his face close to hers. "Did not your father and mother agree that this was necessary? I do not ask for a guarant from Vallebrion out of the deep respect and admiration in which I hold Lady Maitea. I would be within my rights to revoke this boon and require you to stay as surety of your family's loyalty, Mistress Clara."
No. Oh Prophets, they hadn't anticipated that. "My mother was injured, your majesty," said Clara, stumbling over her words. "This has taken up my father's attention. I came without their leave."
"Lady Maitea has been hurt?" Zarinel released her took a step back. "How so?"
"A fall, your majesty. She sleeps like death and does not wake." She crossed her arms over her chest to hold in the misery that welled there.
Zarinel turned away. "I am sorry to hear it. I will ask the Prophets for her safe recovery."
"Thank you, your majesty," Clara mumbled.
Zarinel turned around, more the severe, remote prince than he had been a moment earlier. "What explanation do you wish to tender me for Lord Fearghill's and your own actions?"
From the threat of being detained to a fear of being released too soon. Duncan might not even be in the dungeon yet. "I wish--with your majesty's leave--to tell the whole court. I have nothing to hide and would have the truth known."
* * *
Maran and the others filed down into the darkness, Duncan at the rear. The way was narrow, and the walls rough-hewn stone. The long passage opened into a cave-like chamber, off which sprouted many ways.
Duncan looked behind him and mentally marked the way they had come. He chewed on his bottom lip. How would he find Fearghill in this labyrinth?
Maran flung himself down on a wooden chair in the centre of the chamber and put his feet up on the table. "Anyone fancy a hand of horse, hart and hound?"
Duncan stepped into a shadow to hide the shudder that shook him. By the time Maran sought him out, he had the seeming back in place. "Ayal?"
Shaking his head, Duncan said, "I'm going to do a walk-around."
Maran shrugged. "Suit yourself." The other two joined him at the table.
Duncan looked around. There were five paths, save the one by which they had entered. They were all barred. He had no idea which to take. The most important thing was to seem like he knew what he was doing.
"Hey Maran," he said, "toss me the keys, will you?"
Maran gave him a strange look and jerked his chin towards a hook on the wall. "Get 'em yourself. I'm busy."
Duncan made a rude gesture, which Maran returned before going back to his game. Duncan went over to the hook and pulled the keys down. The big ring had about two score keys around it. He shook through them. None resembled the big black key he'd seen the Steward use to open the main door. Too much to hope.
He went over to the nearest door and shielded the lock with his body while he found the key that turned the lock. He slipped through, locking the door behind him, and dropped the seeming.
Here, the torches were further apart. The hallway was almost in darkness. On either side, at long intervals, were more doors. Duncan took a torch from its sconce and went up to the barred grate of the first one. Putting the torch to the door, he peered inside. It was a big room, full of men, lying around huddled and ragged. "Fearghill?" Duncan whispered. None stirred. The torch-light did not pick up any flaxen-blond heads.
The next door showed the same, but was full of women. The next, the same. Filthy, ragged specimens. All People as far as Duncan could tell. He set the torch in its sconce and left the corridor, locking the door behind him.
"How are the criminals and beggars today, Ayal?" said one of the guards at the table.
"Much as always," said Duncan. He went to the next door.
"Anyone died overnight?"
"Hard to tell," said Duncan without without turning around.
"Be a blessed mercy if they had," said the guard. "Your hand, Maran."
He found the key and slipped into the corridor. Again, he locked it behind him. This corridor was much like the last: big, dark rooms filled with abject misery. He left quickly and went on to the next.
When he went to the next door, Maran called, "Try and teach those Samiochi bastards some People if you can. Please and thank you at least."
Duncan's hand stilled on the door. He thought of his other goal, the one he hadn't let himself think about, hadn't breathed a word of to Aithne, because she would have stopped him. Because Fearghill wasn't the only unjustly doomed man locked in the High Rock dungeons.
"People manners," agreed one of the others. "Filthy southerners. Last time I went in there, I think one of the women tried to lay a curse on me."
"Ooooo," said Maran.
Duncan slipped inside. Here the doors were closer together, and peering into each one revealed a smaller room, crammed full of prisoners.
"I seek General Salomao the Great," he said.
Down the hall, a voice came from behind one of the doors. "Who asks?"
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...