At first, I thought we had walked into a library. There were books everywhere, the walls lined with shelves on which they were stacked. To our right, a door opened into another room. In front of the closest bookcase, a table held a chess board and pieces, other gameboards piled upon it. At the other end of the room, a high-arched, mullioned window let in bright sunlight.
On the opposite side of the room stood a large four-poster bedstead, its headboard against the wall. It was swathed so thickly in translucent draperies its occupant was little more than a faceless figure. Two people stood beside the bed, Prince Carel and the Queen Mother, both painted and draped in the heaviest of mourning.
“So you’ve finally arrived,” Carel greeted his brother brusquely. He flicked a glance at me. “And is this the Lady Comaunder’s choice?” He sounded as if he couldn’t believe it.
“Linus, who is this person?” Lady Mathilde didn’t give her next-to-youngest a chance to answer his brother. She was a small woman, even shorter than I, now plump with middle age— dumpy, to be truthful—and her voluminous gown with its flowing sleeves making her look even more squat and fat. I could see she’d probably been very comely when she was His Majesty’s bride, and that determined little chin and her bright eyes were probably two of the features catching his eye. Now, however, there was too much willfulness in her expression and her eyes appeared small and cruel. Perhaps king’s consorts become that way over time. All I know is I felt whatever she was thinking didn’t bode well for me.
“This is the soldier Comaunder Mariah sent to guard Crispin,” Carel answered for Linus.
“He seems young.” Standing, she bustled over to me, peering into my face. Shewas shortsighted also, it seemed. I forced myself not to back away. Abruptly, she recoiled. “Carel, this is a girl!”
“Astute of you to notice, Mother.” Carel’s didn’t attempt to keep his answer respectful. That made me frown. Truly, the Royal offspring weren’t acting as I thought they should. Certainly they weren’t deporting themselves as they did on the battlefield. There, they were calm and collected. At the moment, both seemed merely testy, spiteful children. Still, grief affected men in different ways. I hoped that was all it was.
“Comaunder Mariah’s daughter, as a matter of fact,” he went on.
Lady Mathilde stared at her eldest, plainly upset, more than a little angry. Something was wrong, and it appeared to do with my gender.
“She can’t guard His Majesty,” she stated, in a don’t-argue-with-me tone.
“Why not?” Linus spoke up, doing just that. There was so much belligerence in those two words I hoped I wasn’t about to witness a family row.
“She’s a female—” Lady Mathilde began, giving him a glare saying much about a son daring to question his mother’s opinions.
“So?” Carel interrupted. Not letting his mother finish a sentence earned him a scowl.
“Crispin’s guard has to be with him every minute of the day and night. This girl can’t possibly sleep in the same room with His Majesty. It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Janel’s a devotee of the Goddess, Madame.” Carel’s reply was clipped as if attempting to control his anger. A faint rose fragrance hovered in the air. “DeOsse requires chastity of her followers. You needn’t worry about her climbing into bed with him.”
That earned him a shocked look. Both from Mathilde and myself. Linus stifled a chuckle.
“She’s too young, Carel. Your brother requires assistance in bathing and other…necessities. Perhaps if she were more mature… It’s common knowledge young women are susceptible to the sight of bare male bodies, even one as frail as your brother’s…”
At this point, I had to bit my lip to stifle my own laughter. Great DeOsse! She thinks I’ll have designs on the King? On that sickly creature? If I were going to break my vows, it’d certainly be for someone in better health than he. Carel or Linus or… Better end that thought right now.
“Stop this, Madame.” Carel’s snort said it all. “Janel Redhu’s no danger to anyone except those who might harm His Majesty. She’s a soldier first and a female second.”
“She can’t guard him constantly.” She wasn’t going to give up. “S-she’ll be indisposed…during…uh…female Times.”
“I’ve spoken to the Royal Leech about that.” Carel’s reply was calm though he avoided both his mother’s gaze and my own. The rose scent was stronger now. I could tell Mathilde smelled it also, from the way her nostrils quivered. “He assures me Followers are blessed with a lack of…that physical property. Until they are released from their vows.”
Carel might be calm but I felt my own cheeks reddening. I studied the floor. Linus fixed an equally interested gaze on the ceiling.
“Nevertheless, nothing! I asked the Commander for her best soldier and Janel is her choice. She stays.”
There was a sigh and a creaking of the leather straps supporting the mattress. A sleepy murmur, sudden movement from the bed, a body straightening and rolling over.
“M-Mother?” The voice was so shaky and hollow it sounded like an old man rather than a seventeen-year-old boy.
“Yes, my angel.” Mathilde was distracted from further argument as she rushed back to the bedside. She leaned into the draperies, reaching toward the vague figure lying there, assisting His Majesty in sitting upright. Once he was settled and propped on several pillows, she straightened.
“W-we have a v-visitor?” It was asked breathlessly. Crispin sounded as if he’d run a race and couldn’t get his wind. Oh, Goddess, and he stutters, too. I felt my heart dip with pity. He leaned forward slightly. “Who are you, s-soldier?”
“The guard sent from Sword Squad—” Carel began.
I started to supply my name.
“—a female,” Mathilde didn’t let either of us finish. “I’ve told him she isn’t acceptable.”
Oh no. She’s going to talk him out of it. Now I understood Linus’ earlier remark. For some reason, the Queen Mother didn’t want her son to have a guard. I imagined she had enough influence with him to have me sent away. Well, that’d be no reflection on me or my abilities, but it would be an insult. To myself as well as to the Lady Commander my mother for her choice.
“Why not?” It was the whining query of a child being told he couldn’t do something.
“See? Even His Majesty sees there’s no problem,” Carel pointed out, not trying to hide how this pleased him.
Mathilde ignored him, turning back to the bed. “Because your guard must be here at all times. Think about that. You don’t want a female here while you’re being bathed, do you? Seeing you naked? Or watching you relieve yourself into a chamber?”
She emphasized those last words as if this were a crime of the highest order. Crispin cringed. There was no other way to describe the sudden movement the figure behind the draperies made.
“She wouldn’t look…” His voice went up so quickly it became a squeak. There was a loud gulp as he attempted to return it to a more kingly timbre. The shadowy head turned in his elder brother’s direction. “Carel, s-surely she wouldn’t…”
“Of course not.” Where Carel was short with his mother, his tone with his brother was quieter. Matter-of-fact, but slightly pacifying as if he were speaking to someone much, much younger. “Whenever you’re being bathed, Janel will turn her back. And she’ll never be in your company when you perform your other functions. Will you, Prive?” He directed this last question at me so suddenly I nearly jumped.
“C-certainly not, Sire.” It was the first time I’d been addressed directly since entering the room and I grimaced at that brief tremble in my voice. I hoped no one thought I was mocking my king’s stammer. “I swear His Majesty’ll have privacy.”
“Let me remind you, Madame,” Carel went on, pressing the point. “If Prive Redhu’s sent away, the Lady Commander’s next choice may be her son, Marius. You do remember Marius, Mother?”
At mention of my brother’s name, Lady Mathilde shuddered. There was no other way to describe the visible frisson going through that overweight little body. She muttered something. It sounded like “She wouldn’t dare.”
What the hell does that mean?
“Come closer, Prive.” A hand wavered through the draperies. It was waxen-pale, large but bony, almost as white as the lawn sleeve covering it. The arm shook slightly as it extended, beckoning. “What are your orders concerning us?”
Before Lady Mathilde could object, I stepped forward and seized Crispin’s hand. It was as chill as a piece of alabaster, not like a living thing at all. Dropping to one knee, I pressed the cold fingers to my forehead.
“I’m to protect you, Your Majesty, and keep your enemies at bay.”
The hand withdrew, pulling me to my feet as it disappeared back inside the sanctuary of the bed. “Then it’s all right. She can s-stay, Mother.”
“But—” Mathilde wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“His Majesty has spoken, Madame,” Carel pointed out, and the finality in his own voice also held triumph. Got another one past her, it seemed to say. I was beginning to wonder just how much filial devotion there actually was between Mathilde and her sons. Not much that I could see.