As soon as Ean arrived at Danya’s room, Lahnria bowed all the way and flared her wingtips until they touched the ground on either side. A bow of apology.
Something else had gone wrong?
“What is it, Gar Saskin?” Ean asked.
“Your Highness,” she said. “I let Lady Firrisskahv go into a room with an undiscovered person in it. It was only Nanli, but it easily could have been an assassin. I have no excuse.”
Ean almost brushed it aside. He was entirely too tired to work up any anger at a minor oversight.
Thoughts of Kaim stopped him.
Would he? No…
But men had killed for far less. Responsible men had killed for far less.
Ean felt sick. Kaim wouldn’t.
But someone else might. Kaim couldn’t be the only one who would feel so passionately about a Garagran.
Still, it would do no good to tear Lahnria apart. She had an excellent record and a spotless reputation. Find the problem and fix it.
“Why did you neglect your duty?” Ean asked Lahnria.
She hadn’t straightened from her bow and spoke while still looking down. Tixeries had a profound sense of duty when it came to military service.
“I thought… I thought to myself that nothing like that could happen here.”
Ean understood. He thought, prayed, thought some more, and found an answer that responded to his own blindness too.
“We’ve never had a Garagran living in the castle before. Not that I know of. Kai only knows what someone might try with one so close and vulnerable.”
Lahnria’s bow deepened.
“Stand up, Lahnria. You, Immilene and Miri are the best we have. Trin and I both know it. And Danya will be just as dead if you’re distracted by guilt as by complacency. Take your duty seriously every time, especially where everyone thinks it’s safe. Only Kai knows the moment it will actually matter.”
It was common wisdom given to Salshiran soldiers, but also true. It had stuck around for that very reason.
Lahnria nodded and straightened up.
“Her life is not in your hands. Only your duty is. Trust, and do what Kai bids, and pray that it is enough.”
“Yes your Highness. Thank you, your highness.”
Ean passed her and went into the room.
The dark, silent room.
He found the light switch and pushed the on button.
Light from the chandelier showed two figures curled on the bed asleep, a larger one sheltering a smaller one, topped by a gray cat and a black kirtak also asleep together.
Danya? Asleep with Nanli?
For a moment he envied the woman for getting so much rest before dinner. Then he smiled at the wonder of it and crossed to the bed. He still had Danya’s package, tucked under his arm. He set that on the nightstand and turned back to look at the two unlikely companions, nestled together. Danya’s scales were rainbow again.
Danya cracked an eye and looked up at him.
“I smell beef jerky,” she whispered.
Whispered. Like the sleeping child mattered.
“I brought the rest of your treats,” Ean said.
Danya pushed herself up enough to look around and spotted the package on the nightstand. She looked at the girl next, as if uncertain of what to do with her. It was a look any number of Tavarins had given Nanli when she showed up in some unexpected place, but Danya’s seemed more helpless.
“Should I add you to the babysitting rotation?” Ean asked.
Danya snapped her head around and looked up at him again, then pushed herself all the way up. Without shaking the bed. The cat and the kirtak rolled off her back on the side opposite the child. The cat immediately came around and curled up next to Nanli again, while the Kirtak found a perch on the head of the bed.
Danya reached over and retrieved the package, but kept her eyes on Ean, questioning him. Slowly her scales returned to a glossy black.
“It’s unexpected,” Ean said. “You getting along with Nanli.”
Danya raised her eyebrows, then narrowed her eyes.
“Garagrans have siblings too.”
She looked down at the package and ran her fingers over the tape. Ean started to tell her how to open it and she held up a hand. He stopped and watched.
After a few tikkits she found an edge, and started to peel up the tape. She seemed amazed at the tacky surface, but only for a moment. Then the package was open and she was eating beef jerky again.
“May I have one?” Ean asked.
“No,” she said without looking up. “You can eat at dinner.”
He’d offended her.
“I apologize for insulting you.”
“Hmph.” She nodded, but still didn’t offer any jerky.
Ean decided to go.
“Dinner will be in,” he checked his pocket watch, which read 5:99 PM, “half a mark.”
He turned to leave.
“Your ‘Kai’ is strange,” Danya said.
“What makes you say that?”
“Nanli told me her kahtakism.”
In Tokarien? Ean wondered at that. The Kahtakism was learned in Hahkaht. Nanli was only six.
He looked down at her and saw blue eyes looking up at the two adults.
“When did you learn to translate?”
Two little legs popped up on the bed and began swinging back and forth.
“It’s easy,” Nanli sang. “I know Hahkaht. I know Tokarien.”
“It’s not actually that easy,” Ean said.
“Says you.” Nanli eyed the package of beef jerky. Danya took one of the treats and shoved it in her mouth. Nanli started to chew on it then took a moment to smile up at Ean and flipped her wings.
“Scamp. Your parents will be looking for you.”
Nanli glared at him and rolled off the bed, grabbing the cat in the process. She ran to the door, cat clutched to her chest, treat sticking out between her teeth, and vanished out into the hall.
The door slammed.
Ean kept his eyes on Danya. She watched the girl go with a wistful expression on her face.
“She’ll be back,” he said. “Now that you’ve fed her you’ll never get rid of her.”
Danya stared at the door for another tikkit then looked back at him.
“So,” Ean said. “You have questions about Kai?”
“Not really. I just said your beliefs are strange.”
“Well, then I have one for you.”
Danya raised an eyebrow at him as she sat up straight and selected another piece of jerky.
Ean’s stomach rumbled.
A smile flickered across her face, so fast Ean almost doubted he’d seen it.
“Can I ask?” he said.
She brought the treat up and started eating it one tiny bite at a time. He waited while she made a show of considering his request. Halfway through the snack she nodded and waved at him to proceed.
“You have siblings?”
Danya froze, staring into space. Her scales went dead blue. The treat tumbled from her lips.
“No,” she whispered.
She looked down at the dropped food, picked it up off the bed, and finished it in one bite. She started on the next. And then the next.
What had happened? Something must have happened to them. Perhaps whatever had happened to make her flee.
Did she kill them too?
Ean twitched as the dark thought flitted across his mind.
Help her, Ahttah.
Suddenly Danya looked at him and started. Had she forgotten he was there?
“You can go,” she said.
“Are you alright?”
She looked around the room, stopping on the floor near his feet.
“Please go,” she said.
“Do you really want me to?”
She looked up at him, her eyes dead, her face a mask.
“I’m sorry. For whatever you’ve been through. I’ll leave you in peace.”
He turned and headed for the door.
The sound of weeping came from behind him.
He stopped at the door. He couldn’t leave her like this.
He opened the door, stepped through, and closed it behind himself. Then he rested his back against the wood. Lahnria looked up at him, curiosity in her expression. From the other side came sobs and choking gasps.
He looked down at Lahnria and met her gaze.
“Tell me, Miss Saskin. When should a man disrespect a lady’s wishes about being in her presence?”
Her silver irises flicked up to the ceiling for an instant, then back to him.
“Never, Mister Tavarin. Except when you must or you should.”
“That’s not a good answer.”
“It’s what I have.”
“Mourn with those who mourn.”
“Come with me, Saskin.”
He opened the door and went back in, Lahnria close behind. Danya lay curled into a ball on the bed, shaking silently.
Ean went to her and sat down on her far side.
Lahnria sat on the other.
Then they waited with her for as long as was needed.
Ean didn’t know how long they had been next to Danya’s shaking form when she uncurled, sat up between them, and put her feet on the floor. She stared straight ahead, looking at neither of them. Tears were still running down her cheeks.
After another kella passed, she spoke.
“My older sister and brother mostly ignored me,” she said in hoarse tones. “But my younger brother always loved to play with me when he was young, and he still talked to me when he grew up.” She smiled. “He actually taught me how to survive in the wilderness. How to fight and think. He shared all his lessons with me whenever he could.”
“He was defending the gate when our… when the enemy Garagrans came. They were bigger. Stronger. He fought so hard…”
She stopped, hunched slightly as her throat locked up.
Lahnria gave her a full on hug around her middle. Ean put a hand on her shoulder.
“They tore his wings, then surrounded him and burned him to death. Many… many think we’re fireproof, but it’s not true. We use it, but it will eat us alive just as quickly if it’s hot enough.”
“He had blue eyes when he was a baby. So very, very blue. They got lighter when he got older, but they never went gold like the rest of us. They looked just like Nanli’s.”
“His name was Brathan.”
She closed her eyes and began to shake again under Ean’s hand. He squeezed her shoulder, but didn’t know what else to do.
If she were Trin or one of his cousins…
He added his hug to Lahnria’s.
Danya began to wail.
He whispered prayers over her, begging for healing for her heart. He heard Lahnria doing the same.
She only cried harder.
Until she was still.
Danya turned her face.
Suddenly Ean was looking into her gold eyes from less than a handsbreadth away.
They filled his world.
“How do you people make me hurt so much inside every day I’m here?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
He was grateful when she looked away and down at Lahnria.
“Thank you,” she said, and put a hand on the Tixerie’s head. Lahnria squeezed Danya again, then let go and sat up.
Ean followed suit, giving Danya space again.
She stared at the floor for a breath, then shook her head.
“What time is it?”
Ean pulled out his pocketwatch.
“Did I make you miss dinner?”
Ean looked up from his watch and studied her. Was something different?
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We can miss dinner.”
“Bethania said I would have to attend. Or you would be shamed.”
Of course Tan-tan had said that.
“It will be all right.”
Danya looked him right in the eyes, again, but now she had her composure back and there was fire, rather than pain.
“No. Your grandmother is right. Proper appearances must be maintained. Decorum is a cornerstone of royalty.”
“Get up and put yourself in order while I wash my face and get a new overdress. I’m meeting your family tonight.”