Announcements went out by noon.
Word from Trin came back by mid-afternoon.
All paperwork was in. Danya Firrisskahv was safe. Her exact words.
Ember sighed in relief.
Just before sunset another message came in. From the King.
Prince Ean Tavarin and his betrothed were to report to the capitol immediately.
Half a mark later by the village clock, Ember sat in the green and brass passenger car attached to the locomotive, surrounded by a beautiful sea of red and gold upholstery yet stiffening with a new wave of dread. She ran her fingers over the plush velvet underneath her–such a luxury!–then began to worry at the seam of one of the cushions with an idle finger. The day before she would have been excited to be riding in the strange machine, and probably would have stretched out on one of the cushions to bury her face in this wonderful softness, but knowing what the train was taking her into now overshadowed any eagerness that remained.
At least there would be no more messages until the capitol. Another blizzard was closing in, set to hush everything under a fresh blanket of snow. The Prince assured her that the machine would not care about that, but the lights that the signal towers used needed clear air to be seen.
If this was what Salshira had in it’s small farming villages, what would she find in the capitol?
And how would she survive?
The Prince had assured her that the worst that his father would do to her was banish her, the same threat as before, but she wasn’t so sure. There were any number of ways an angry king could eliminate one woman, even ways that wouldn’t alert his own protective son. Again it was only the threat of the Vohrskrain beyond the mountains that kept her where she was.
She looked out the frosting window at the white-coated soldiers scrambling around under the gas lights of the station and wished for a moment that she could join them. Even if it was cold, at least she would have something to do for distraction.
Was this rapid cycle of threat and relief going to become the pattern of her life?
For just one moment that morning she had hoped not. For just one moment she had hoped that the betrothal would be enough.
She had dared to dream of another wonderful day of waking up in a warm bed and spending the day in a sleepy inn, eating three meals of delicious food that a smiling man brought out and laid before her.
But of course not.
It only made sense.
Ember quashed her inner sarcasm with the little realism she had gained from her heritage. She was betrothed to the crown prince of the country, and despite the fact that it was only a bit of legal maneuvering, particularly because it was only a bit of legal maneuvering, she would have to do some explaining.
And what was she going to say? How long before her vague story of being a wandering garagran exiled for political reasons no longer sufficed?
Should she just tell them?
And what would that do to the contract?
She leaned her forehead against the glass and felt the cold soak through her scales.
It failed to soothe her thoughts.
Something tapped on the window right over her face.
She jumped and stared through at a tanned, boyish face glowing in the lamplight spilling out from the cabin.
The young man watched her, waiting, and Ember unlatched the window and pushed the metal-framed pane down. Icy air blasted into her face as warm air fled over the top of her head. A few snow crystals sparked on her cheeks and melted.
“What?” she said.
The boy recoiled at her voice and she winced. She had not talked to the boy since the night of the feast, but his idiocy, and perhaps his kindness, had left an impression. He didn’t deserve harsh treatment. She moderated her emotions.
“What is it, Pennet?”
The boy approached again and held up a package wrapped in thin, crinkly paper covered in print–that was a concept–and tied with string.
“He said you would like this.”
Ember took the package, it barely fit through the window, and set it in her lap, curious to know what it contained. When she looked up again to thank him, the young man was already leaving. His brown coat disappeared into the night as soon as he left the light of the station.
Going back to his cows, most likely.
She looked at the package again, squeezing it under her fingers to get an idea of what it contained, but only figured out that it was something shapeless. She fiddled with the strings until the messy knot came apart, then peeled back the crackling layers of… newsprint, that was it… to expose…
Tears welled up in her eyes before she recognized what she was seeing.
Woodsmoke and honey and beef and apples!
She picked up one of the red-brown treats, thin-sliced beef jerky wrapped around honey-preserved apples and then smoked, and bit her lips as a rush of emotions threatened to overwhelm her.
These were her favorites.
Who could know such a thing?
Was it coincidence?
Who was “he”?
She wanted to run after Pennet and demand an answer, but when she looked back out the open window she saw the Prince approaching the train. He had been out paying bills and making other necessary arrangement, and now that he was back it would be time to leave.
Ember sat back in the seat and bit into the treat in her fingers, tasting rich smoky meat mixed with apple tart and honey ambrosia. The tears came faster and she closed her eyes and gave in to the bittersweet memories of Antan, the old slave-cook that her mother had acquired from the lands far to the north, near the plains of the Stony Heart.