Chapter 11

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 "I’d forgotten how small this castle is,” said Uncle Jarrod. “One could almost call it a manor.”

Maelyn gave him the strained smile she’d worn all afternoon. “We prefer it small. Less trouble to care for.”

They walked along the corridor that led to most of the bedchambers. Uncle Jarrod had instructed Maelyn to open the doors and then he’d sauntered around each room, scrutinizing every corner. She wondered if he expected to find the chambers riddled with mice and cobwebs since the servants had gone.

Uncle Jarrod’s own servant trailed behind them, a short, sallow man with droopy eyes. He neither spoke nor looked directly at her, but Maelyn felt his gaze when she turned away. She wished Uncle Jarrod hadn’t brought him. But she knew her uncle could not even change his shoes without assistance.

“Who does the cleaning?” Uncle Jarrod asked, clearly impressed with the immaculate rooms. Maelyn tried not to look smug. “Briette – the Chamber Princess. She’s very efficient.”

They turned into a tower at the corridor’s end and started up a winding stair. “What’s up here?” Uncle Jarrod asked. He looked cramped on the curling staircase, barely wider than himself.

“You haven’t seen Arialain’s chamber,” said Maelyn. “Hers is highest in the castle.”

“I don’t envy her climbing up here every night,” Uncle Jarrod grumbled. He turned to the sallow servant. “My strength is waning. Fetch me some wine, and cold venison if they have it.”

“We have it,” said Maelyn, glad to see the servant go.

The stair ended abruptly at Arialain’s chamber door. Maelyn turned the latch and let Uncle Jarrod in.

“Holy Noses!” Uncle Jarrod cried. “Barely more than a cupboard!”

The bed hoarded nearly all the floor space, begrudging a few corners for a chair, a wardrobe, and a scarlet trunk. Still, a red coverlet brightened the bed, painted apple trees adorned the walls, and the window gushed with sunlight. Maelyn thought the room looked cheery.

Uncle Jarrod shook his head. “My washwomen sleep in larger chambers.”

Maelyn stepped past Uncle Jarrod and sat on the bed. She planted her hands on either side of her and turned hard eyes on the king. “All right, Uncle. I want to know why you are here.”

Uncle Jarrod frowned. “I am visiting.”

“You visit less than once a year,” said Maelyn. “We saw you last at Father’s burial; I expected no more of you for eighteen months. You arrived here without sending word and you’re taking an unnatural interest in our welfare. I want to know why.”

Uncle Jarrod sunk onto the single chair and its slim wooden legs creaked in shock at his weight. “I did not expect your father to die before your twentieth year. It changes things.”

“How?” Maelyn asked.

Uncle Jarrod rested a hand on his knee and looked at her steadily. “This life you’ve been given. In a castle. As a princess. Do you think you deserve it?”

“I know you never approved of what Father did,” Maelyn said tersely.

“Nor am I the only one who doubted the wisdom of raising nine urchins into royalty. But that wasn’t my question.”

Maelyn’s eyes dropped to his blue velvet shoes. “I never thought I deserved this life. None of us do – except maybe Coralina. It was a gift.”

“And have you ever thought there may be someone… more deserving of this gift?” Uncle Jarrod asked, his words measured and careful.

Goosebumps prickled Maelyn’s arms. “I don’t know what you mean.”

She heard the servant clomping up the stairs, no doubt bearing the king’s wine and cold venison. Uncle Jarrod leaned back with an expectant smile. “We can talk of this later. Just think on what I said.”

But Maelyn no longer wanted to talk or think about it.

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