“Boiler’s hot, your highness. We can leave anytime.”
Ean nodded to the chief engineer and swept his eyes over the cars of the train and the few soldiers still standing around. He turned and gave the village of Sara’s Rest one last look in the growing darkness, taking in the warm, inviting glow coming from many of the windows. He thought of all that he had been reminded of, by Isayh’s counsel, Pennet’s simple faith, and the joy of the village at the feast, and decided he would be back for a visit. Someday. If he ever remembered on a week when he had the time.
“Call them in, Gilren,” he said.
The chief engineer drew in a breath.
“All aboard!” he bellowed. “Anyone not on the train in one kella is walking home!”
The soldiers still outside the passenger cars scrambled to get inside. Ean followed at an easier pace, ducking into the royal car where he had sent Danya. As he closed the slide door behind him the blare of the steam horn came from the direction of the engine. The chief engineer giving a warning that he was at his station and about to leave.
Ean sat down on the seat facing Danya, who had her head down over an open newsprint package resting in her lap.
The horn sounded again, surprisingly loud, and Ean saw that the window next to her was open.
“Do you want the window open?” he asked her.
She jumped and looked up at him, as if she hadn’t noticed him come in. Her face was tearstreaked and the scales across her forehead were a deep sapphire blue.
“Danya!” he said, “Are you alright?”
She stared at him for a moment as if processing his question was a struggle, then wiped her eyes dry with one hand. The tears stopped and the scales shifted to their normal black.
“I’m fine,” she said after a moment.
Ean didn’t know what to say to such an obvious lie. Something had shaken her severely, but she wasn’t going to admit it. He considered pressing her for an answer, but decided against it. She’d just lock him out more.
Instead he looked at the window, wondering if he should close it. Danya saw his glance and did it herself.
Silence followed, and after a kella of that Ean wondered if he should move to a different seat.
Outside, the steam horn sounded one last time. A moment later there was a quieter chuff, followed by a rapid series of metallic clangs. Then the whole car jerked as the slack ran out between them and the engine and the train began to move. The empty station slid past the windows and was replaced by the glowing windows of the town. After another moment those too were gone, and then there was nothing but darkness and snow.
Through all the sounds Danya gave no reaction, even though she had told him the day before that she had never seen a train before. She had seemed excited then about the idea of riding in one.
Instead she had gone back to staring at the package in her lap. Ean noted that it was filled with what looked like small pieces of beef jerky.
Danya noticed him watching her.
“Ah,” she said, meeting his gaze, “Right. Thank you. Pennet gave these to me. It was your idea, right?”
Ean shook his head.
“What are they?” Ean asked.
Danya looked at the package then back at him.
“Dried jerky and honeyed apples. Pennet gave them to me.”
“You mentioned Pennet.”
“Oh. I did.” She dropped her gaze and fell silent again.
The silence stretched on as the night rolled past outside. Ean prayed for wisdom, but still couldn’t think of anything to say.
After a while Danya picked up one of the beef jerky treats and began to nibble at it. The smell of smoky beef and honeyed apple drifted over to Ean. It smelled very good. He had forgotten to eat dinner while getting everything ready to leave and now he was hungry. His stomach rumbled.
Apparently Danya had good hearing, because she looked right at his stomach, then him.
“Would you like some?” she asked.
Ean was surprised, but accepted. Danya held out the package and he selected one of the larger treats.
It was good. He finished it far too quickly. He waited several kellas but finally asked,
“May I have another?”
Danya nodded and held out the package again.
“Take as much as you want.”
He limited himself to three. The treats seemed to mean something to her and he didn’t want to deprive her. Four was enough to satisfy his stomach for a while.
“Thank you. They’re very good.”
Danya nodded and the cabin descended into silence once more. Ean had just decided it was going to continue all night when she spoke.
“A Bortin named Antan used to make them for me.”
Ean looked up, but she was gazing at the package. He waited. Eventually she continued.
“He was one of the cooks, a slave my mother bought shortly after I was born. He came from somewhere far to the north, near the Stony Heart, a town named Mellen in the Ranador Plains.” She paused, nibbled at another treat. “Whenever I was feeling bad he would find out and bring a huge basket of these to my chambers. He made them bigger, though.”
She smiled wryly.
“I don’t know how he always knew.”
Tears began to run down her face again and the blue returned to her scales. Ean waited for her to say more, but she just stared at the package and cried.
“What happened to him?” he finally asked.
“I’m sorry.” Ean said.
“No you’re not.”
Ean opened his mouth to deny her words but she looked up and met his gaze. For one brief instant the anguish in her eyes tore at his heart. Then she looked away, out the window at the night.
Ahttah… what was that?
The silence came back for a moment, but now Ean almost hoped it would stay. What had brought such pain to her eyes?
The moment passed.
“You didn’t know him. You can’t be sorry for him. And you shouldn’t be sorry for me.”
She met his gaze again. The pain was still there in her eyes.
“Ask me how he died.”
“Ask, Prince Tavarin. Ask how your guest deals with her friends.”
Ean stared at her, not sure what he could do for her in this moment, and terrified of what she might say if he did as she said.
But there was little other option.
“How did he die?”
“I killed him.” She held his gaze. “Do you want to know why?”
No. He didn’t. But there was no way he could not ask.
“He had a wife, also a slave. Younger. Beautiful according to Bortin standards. A favored knight took an interest in her. My mother sold her to him so he could make her a concubine. Antan heard, and ran away with her. When they were caught…” more tears began to flow and she bit her lip until they slowed again. “When they were caught, I begged my mother to spare him. Instead she ordered me to do the execution. And so I did. Because I wanted her to love me.”
Ean reached across the space between them and took both her hands in his.
“I am filled with sorrow for you, and I wish there was something I could do to ease your pain. I do not condemn you.” Ahttah, forgive this woman. Have mercy on her!
“He looked at me the same way. Then he forgave me. Right before I burned him and his wife to ash.”
Her amber irises were lakes of burning fire, her wide pupils hollow, bottomless pits.
She winced as he said her name and looked away.
“Why are you protecting me?” she hissed.
“You asked that already.”
“You still haven’t given me a real answer.”
“Because I’m a fool who believes in something worth being foolish about.”
He released her hands and sat back waiting for some other response, but she made none. A new silence descended, one filled with unspoken tension. Ean waited, but she avoided looking at him and gave no indication of continuing the conversation.
Finally he gave in.
“I’m going to get some sleep in the cabin on the left. If you want to use the one on the right I’ll lower the bed for you. Would you like that?”
She nodded, but still didn’t look at him.
“Alright. Good night, Lady Firrisskahv. I hope you rest well.”