“Has anyone gone in to see her?”
“Sir Leovarn did, your Highness, but then he came out, saying the queen did not wish to be disturbed.”
In the distance cannons boomed. Mother couldn’t be asleep.
Was she ignoring the battle?
No. This was not good.
“Unlock the doors.”
The little man fiddled with the levered mechanism that worked the bars through the wall.
“Run,” she said and inhaled. He saw what she was going to do and sprinted away.
Her fire struck the wood, warping and twisting it in an instant, then shattering the entire door as the iron bands ignited and the structure buckled under its own weight. She smashed it out of her way and stepped through into the darkened sleeping chamber. The sword glinted in the light from the burning door, buried deep in the back of her mother’s head, right where it met the spine.
Ember thrashed awake, stopping only when she felt down comforter against her hands and feet. A moment after that she realized that the smoke she was smelling wasn’t oak and burning iron, but hickory laced with pork bacon, toast and buttered eggs.
Salshira. She was in the Lilta kingdom still. In the Inn named Sara’s Best Rest.
For the second morning she tuned in to the voices of ten or twenty people tromping around in the common room below. She could barely hear them, but they largely sounded cheerful. She understood from the innkeeper that several of the townsfolk breakfasted at the inn every morning, though Trin had hinted that a few of them were hoping to catch sight of Ember when she came down to eat.
She glanced out the window which looked on the village square and saw that sunlight had just touched the peak of the lamppost centering it and was slowly washing toward the snow surrounding its base.
Definitely time to get up.
Ember slid out of bed. The rug was cool but friendly to her feet. The air was icy and bit at her legs.
Clothing. She had never before spent more time wearing clothing than she had these past few days.
Where were the things Ean had bought her? Trin had recommended them as the finest garments for a local lady in winter.
There in the chair. Thick tamay-silk hose and undershirt, padded kren trousers, long-sleeve cobalt-blue wool blouse–how had they gotten it so incredibly blue?–with sleeveless padded black vest and full-length pleated green wool skirt.
She pulled it all on, almost falling down several times, then got to the thick wool socks and finally the boots.
Zippered boots. Amazing. And so comfortable.
She stood up, stomped a few times to settle the new boots, and went downstairs for food.
Oh, the food!
The innkeeper saw her as soon as she left the stairwell and smiled at her. She suppressed her instinctive cringe–she had seen bared teeth from other garagrans so many times to the opposite effect–and found herself replying with the same expression.
Maybe it was something about the eyes. Human smiles really lived in the eyes.
“Lady Firriskahv! Another early morning for you! Nalanya will have your breakfast out for you in just a moment. Two full plates and heavy on the meat. I saved you a table right over here.”
He led her across the room filled with people who very carefully didn’t stare at her and sat her down at a two-person table at the front, next to one of the large plate windows looking out at the slowly waking square. Right as she sat down there was a hay-wagon going past stacked high with square bales for the cattle pasture and a rider with full saddle bags heading out of town.
The innkeeper left a steaming cup of hax, the sweet, smoky flavored tea that everyone in Salshira used to wake up, and went for the promised breakfast.
She watched him go, then turned her attention to the cup, which she lifted and passed under her nose so she could draw in the invigorating steam. She hummed happily as she exhaled.
Ember had drained it halfway, it had honey in it, too, by the time the innkeeper came back.
“Thank you very much,” she said as he slid two heaping plates onto the table in front of her, along with a handful of fine steel cutlery and a folded napkin. She almost dove into the food with her hands like her first night in the town, but made herself pick up the cutlery and use the knife to cut and the fork to move the food to her mouth.
It was hard to eat tilakko sausage that slowly. Bacon steaks too. But she admitted to herself that the scrambled eggs would have just made a mess any other way.
Mmmm. Buttered toast with jam.
The Prince came in when she was almost through and sat down across from her after asking permission. He waved the innkeeper over and put in an order.
“Two bacon steaks and three eggs sunny, Mayor Chanten.”
The innkeeper smiled wide, obviously overjoyed to be serving the crown prince yet again, and skipped off to fill the order.
Ember pretended to ignore the Prince as she finished eating. The day before he had tried to engage her in conversation at every opportunity, specifically breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and had asked questions about where she was from, what she was running from, where she was going, and so on. She had firmed her resolve to keep her name and past hidden and been as circumspect as possible, but he had kept pressing for information.
Trin had told her straight out that it would be in Ember’s best interest to tell everything.
That had almost broken her open.
The only way she could see of avoiding another day like that was to not engage.
The Prince, however, said nothing and made no attempts at conversation. He waited while Ember ate her meal, ate his own when the innkeeper brought it, and then drank two cups of hax in utter silence, not even looking at her.
She started to get up at one point but he shook his head and motioned for her to stay.
Then he took another ten kellas finishing his hax.
Finally he set the cup down on its saucer with a click and looked at her. Was that exhaustion in his eyes?
“What is it?” she asked.
He sighed, flicked his ears a few times, and looked out the window at a passing child leading a horse.
He looked back at her.
“My father says you have to go, and he is the King.”
Ember went cold again.
No. No. Don’t panic. She had expected this.
But it had looked…
No. It had been too good and she knew it. Safety and care. Free meals. At least she had gotten plenty of rest and more than enough food for the first time in half a year.
“When do I have to go?”
“He wants you out by the end of the day. If you were a citizen, he could never do this, but you aren’t. I tried to get the papers rolling, but he’s already put a ban on that. That leaves you with very few options.”
Citizen. He’d actually looked into that.
Too late, though.
“I understand,” she said. “Will I leave on that train thing of yours?”
He looked very unhappy about the idea.
“But I do have a way to get you around my father’s ban.”
Ember cocked her head.
“You do? But, you don’t seem eager about it.”
“Oh, no, it’s not horrible. Just, awkward.” He looked away then straight at her. “Do you want to stay?”
He had asked that before, and while she hadn’t answered him then, she had thought about it. And the answer seemed obvious to her. As long as the people of Salshira weren’t trying to kill her, their kingdom looked far better than any alternative she could imagine. And now that she had a choice to make, avoiding the question was just silly.
“Yes,” Ember said. “You and your people have been very kind to me. If I can,” she paused, “if I can safely stay, somehow, then I want to. It is safer for me here. What is your plan?”
He drew in a breath, then let it out, then looked at her, then at the table where he studied the pattern of rings in the wood.
“Prince Ean, what horrible thing must I do to stay here?”
“Well,” he said, “You would have to agree to marry me.”