Secret Burdens, Chapter One

A soldier coughed, shattering the silence of the clearing. Jarrett took a deep breath and flexed his fingers around his sword hilt. Before Jarrett’s squad of sixteen men was a hole, the height of a tall man and three times as wide, dug into the rocky hillside.

Within the cave, nothing moved in the darkness. All around them, birds twittered and flies buzzed in the sun-splotched forest. But from the hole came only silence.

Jarrett could imagine its interior. Stinking of offal, dung, and the dry musk of snake, it no doubt led down into a warren of similar tunnels. They riddled this part of the forest for miles, twisting like the branches of a gnarled oak.

It would be suicide to enter. There wasn’t room enough to swing a sword, no easy exit, and a group of men would bottleneck or become trapped. He’d never gone further than a single turn in such a tunnel. Jarrett wondered how long he would last if he ventured deeper.

He tilted his head back, peering beyond the broad brim of his kettle helm to mark the sun’s position in the bright blue sky. Summer heat simmered in the clearing, leaving him sweaty and restless. It was nearing noon. They had been waiting close to two candlemarks.

While this was normally Jarrett’s squad to lead, Lieutenant Nathaniel gave the orders on this hunt. The man had tired of patrols and especially requested this assignment. So, not only did it chafe not giving orders to his own men but it also irked Jarrett to be underneath a sallow-faced lieutenant a decade younger than him.

“Sir,” Jarrett said, “maybe we should slaughter the goats?” He forced a lilt to his voice, turning a pointed suggestion into a question.

A pair of goats stood tied to a holly tree. The lizards often came out to lie in the sun at this time of day but, on occasion, they needed encouragement. It looked to be one of those occasions. Unless this particular beast had slipped out of an exit they missed.

Jarrett and his men had spent the last week closing up holes into the warren. It was possible they’d missed one or the holes they closed belonged to a separate den. Anything was possible with Marduk’s creation. If the creature hadn’t come out yet, then they needed spilled blood. If spilled blood didn’t work, then it was another week in these damned woods, searching for a monster that had eaten three cows and a farmer’s daughter.

On occasion, deep in the night, Jarrett still heard the screams that tore from the throats of the men and women Marduk changed. The sorcerer-king used elemental spirits to turn people into his monsters. Because he was Captain of the Royal Guard at the time, it was Jarrett’s job to protect Marduk in case the wizard lost control of his creation. After the spell was complete, Jarrett escorted the new creation to its cell under the Palace. It was a ritual that happened night after night.

On the walk beside the confused creature, stumbling on four legs instead of two, it never failed to strike him that their eyes remained human. Unless it was the progeny of one, Jarrett knew that every creature he killed had once been a human who did not ask for its fate. And even as he killed them, over a year after their creation, their eyes still remained too human.

After Clara and Emmerich killed Marduk, making Emmerich the new King of Lorst, a traitor opened the cells and released Marduk’s menagerie. It was discovered later that it was Remus, a Tieran who had been attending the Academy for magic workers. It was part of Remus’s plot for revenge, one that Clara and the King foiled through luck and violence.

The monsters spread throughout Lorst, most of them going into the Eastern Forest. After the business with Remus ended, and Clara returned with her parents, Jarrett left his commission. He joined one of the companies assigned to clear the Forest. That had only been two weeks ago but long enough for him to become acquainted with what they fought. Not that he needed much of an introduction.

Nathaniel nodded. “I think you’re right, sergeant.”

Jarrett, nerves tightening his stomach, signaled to the men in charge of the goats. They untied the animals and brought them over to the gaping tunnel. However, as they came closer, the goats tossed their heads and bleated, their eyes rolling in their heads. The soldiers picked them up and carried them the last few feet.

With swift motions, the men slit the goats’ throats and dumped the bodies in the mouth of the hole. They backed away in quick steps. The rest of the men shuffled like saplings brushed by wind, complete focus centered on the hole.

Jarrett became intensely aware of the sweat on his skin, the robin singing in a nearby sycamore, and a bee buzzing around a clump of wild yellow roses. He felt his heart beating in his chest and each whoosh of breath passing through his lungs.

There was a sense of movement in the dark, a darker bulk in the blackness. It might have been his imagination but Jarrett swore the air grew heavier with the reek of dung and old, rotten blood.

Jarrett opened his mouth out of habit but Nathaniel beat him to the order.

“Archers, nock,” the lieutenant called.

The four archers, standing at the flanks, notched their arrows.

A lizard’s clawed foot, larger than Jarrett’s head, reached from the dark and dragged one of the goats into the tunnel. Jarrett listened hard. He didn’t hear anything to suggest the creature had left. He hadn’t heard it approach, either.

“Draw,” said Nathaniel.

Jarrett raised his sword as the archers pulled back.

“Loose!”

The men sent their arrows whizzing into the dark. Screams erupted. Claws scrabbled against earth and stone.

“Nock. Draw. Loose.”

More arrows. More screams and tearing of ground. A salamander three times the size of a horse lunged out of the hole, three arrows buried in its scaled hide. The sun glinted off its crimson and gold scales. It opened its mouth and screamed again.

“For the King!” Jarrett shouted, charging forward and trusting his men to follow. Behind him, the others echoed his war cry and the heavy thud of their boots covered the sounds of the summer day.

***

Two months later…

Jarrett scrubbed himself with the long-handled brush. Satisfied that every part of him was sudsy, he stepped down into the cold pool. His breath caught at the icy water. It was almost too late in the season for outdoor bathing. The poplars ringing the spring wore the bright gold plumage of autumn. But being able to put his whole body in water, no matter its temperature, was really the last luxury allowed to him.

Besides, the cold water helped rid of him of a worry that had been crouching in the back of his mind.

Once rinsed, he climbed out and dried with a scratchy towel. He shivered as cold wind swept over his bare skin, raising goosebumps in its wake. The trousers he fumbled with nearly slipped out of his half-numb fingers.

“Sergeant?”

A soldier from the outpost stood at the rise over the spring.

“What is it, Walter?” Jarrett asked, pulling on his wool tunic. The warmth felt glorious against him. He ran his fingers through his short-cropped hair.

“The captain summons you, sergeant.”

“Tell him I’ll be right there.”

Walter saluted and walked away. Jarrett jammed on his gloves, pausing long enough to examine the mottled, scarred flesh of his left hand. Once again, the memory of the salamander’s scream echoed through his mind. He shoved on the glove and buckled on his sword.

During the walk to the outpost, the worry he’d been carrying since summer rose in his mind. And there was nothing to kill or a task to complete to help him ignore it.

Clara had not answered his letters. He wondered if she was angry with him for leaving, despite his best efforts to explain it to her. Stubborn woman.

The thick wooden walls of the outpost rose before him as he came up the path. It sat on the edge of Vernon’s Luck, a small town deep in the Eastern Forest. Not far away, Lord Stanley lived in his estate. From there, he ruled his small fiefdom. Jarrett had never met the man. Rumor had it that he was fair and honest.

As Jarrett passed through the gate, he nodded at the soldiers on guard duty. No one there recognized him as the former Captain of the Royal Guard. To everyone, from armorer to scullery maid, he was only Sergeant Jarrett and he thanked the Mother for small mercies.

It was bad enough that his own memory didn’t let him forget about his failures. He didn’t need other people reminding him.

After swinging by the barracks to drop off his toiletries, he walked into the big main building to the captain’s office. Jarrett knew men who loved to decorate their offices and sleeping quarters with every comfort. Captain Andrew worked out of a room stark in its simplicity.

A spacious desk, a table with chair by the window, a bookcase with battered volumes, and a series of cubby-holes bristling with rolled papers were the only items there other than the man himself. It looked almost incongruous against the deep red paint applied by its last occupant. Andrew, a large man with the shoulders of a bull, sat in the chair by the window, taking advantage of the brilliant sunlight. He held sheaves of paper: reports from patrols, no doubt. Jarrett saluted him.

Dropping them onto the table, Andrew saluted back. “You’re a lucky man, sergeant.”

“Sir?”

“I received an order to relieve you of duty immediately and send you to Bertrand as quickly as your horse can carry you. With it came this letter.” He held out a thick, folded letter.

The moment Jarrett touched it, he recognized the weight of the paper. It was the kind especially made for the Palace. The handwriting addressing it to him appeared familiar. He flipped it over and surprise lit through him. Clara’s seal, a star surmounting an eye, stared back at him.

“As of this moment, Sergeant Jarrett, you are relieved of all duty and are ordered to leave tomorrow morning. A caravan is going in that direction, so you’ll go with them.”

“The roads are quiet,” Jarrett replied. “More or less. I should be able to make the journey on my own.”

“Maybe so, but it’s never a good idea to tempt destruction. You’ve been a good soldier. I hate to see you go.”

“Did the orders say where I’m to report?”

“To the Lady Clara, with full rank of captain restored. That’s all the orders said. I assume details are in the letter. This is your copy of your orders.” He held out another folded piece of paper.

Jarrett took it. “I’ll miss risking my life in this damn forest, sir.”

Andrew snorted. “I’m sure you will. You may go. I’m sure you have plenty of packing to do.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jarrett saluted and departed, barely waiting for the captain to return it.

In the two months spent toiling and bleeding in the Eastern Forest, he had written Clara three letters. He knew it was odd. Normally, only very close friends, relatives, and lovers exchanged informal correspondence. However, after everything they’d been through together, Jarrett felt he’d earned the privilege. Besides, he’d left her still suffering from the after effects of her spirit journey. Surely letters full of the funny antics of soldiers would be welcome to a sick person.

However, none of his letters were answered. After the third one, he stopped trying.

Friends from among the Royal Guard, who occasionally wrote, said Clara was rarely seen outside her quarters. Her father died mere weeks after arriving at the Palace. Whether old age, a consequence of his long journey, or the sudden change in diet, no one knew for sure. And the betrothal between Clara and Emmerich still remained unofficial: the Council sat in deadlock over approving it. According to Jarrett’s contacts, King Precene of Tier wanted Emmerich to marry one of his daughters. Such a marriage made for a military and political alliance that could bring an end to centuries of war and uneasy truces. Half of the Council wanted to grasp at it while the other half supported Emmerich, mostly out of a desire to spite Tier.

Now with a letter in hand, Jarrett wasn’t sure what to think. He certainly didn’t expect concern and anticipation to turn his stomach inside out.

Privacy not being in abundance in the barracks, he found a measure of it in the outpost’s chapel. Only a few of the more devout of the servants and soldiers ever went there. He entered the narrow room, to find it occupied only by the statue of the Mother at her spinning wheel, with the Child standing by her knee.

Jarrett sat in a pew in a far corner, by a stained glass window. Red and blue light streamed over the worn, dark wood. He broke the letter’s seal and unfolded it.

Jarrett,

Bertrand is as alive and bustling as the day you left. The Palace prepares for winter. Bruin says it’s still weeks away. The harvest festival will be soon and it’s all my maidservants can talk about. Mistress Catriona has begun making her amazing apple and pumpkin turnovers. She asks me about you but I can’t tell her anything.

I’ve written letters but have received no reply. If you suffered misfortune, I’m sure I would have been informed, so I can only conclude that you’re too busy killing monsters and stealing pastries from the outpost kitchens.

Emmerich granted me the temporary ability to issue military orders. Please don’t be angry that my first one was to bring you back. Don’t dawdle. I have a task that requires your immediate attention.

Your friend,

Clara

As Jarrett folded the letter, he wasn’t sure what to think or feel.

First, the letter was little better than a note and it left him feeling underwhelmed. After two months, he thought there would be more to say. Secondly, it didn’t explain why no one saw her outside her rooms or if she’d recovered from her illness. It certainly didn’t explain why she wanted him back, given what she knew about his leaving. Thirdly, it only strengthened his concern.

She really had written him. How could Lady Clara’s letters become waylaid? Despite the monsters, letters and packages flowed freely. He certainly hadn’t missed any from his friends. Missives from a noble of Clara’s prominence would have higher priority. In fact, they would come through with the Royal Messenger, who visited the outpost once a week, while Jarrett’s regular correspondence ran through the merchants. Suspicion arose but he wasn’t sure who to direct it toward.

Instead of making him feel better, the note only brought a new chill to his spine.

***

On his own, Jarrett could reach Bertrand in a week or so. However, because he traveled in a caravan, it took longer and he counted the days, Clara’s phrase “requires immediate attention” spawning scenario after scenario in his mind. Eventually, they left the Eastern Forest behind for wide plains. Late autumn turned the grass to dull shades of brown, with patches of darker green. Wind blew almost nonstop, bearing with it the icy promise of snow and winter. It only served to add to his sense of impending doom.

Relief swelled in him when they crested a hill and sighted Bertrand sprawled out along the banks of the Lyn Tone River. The dark skeletons of fire-gutted buildings in the Low Quarters looked especially black set against the white stone walls surrounding the inner city.

Once upon a time, Bertrand had been a much smaller city. However, as it grew, the walls did not move. People built outside them and those became the Low Quarters. The poorer citizens made their home in this section of the city, which spilled out onto the plains and along the edge of the river. The city had been built on a hill, so the unblemished walls rose above the dingier Low Quarters while the towers of the Palace, Grand Temple, and the Academy reigned over them all.

They passed through the Low Quarters. Many buildings still lay in charred rubble but scaffolds and industry overshadowed them. It all seemed futile to Jarrett. Without walls, they remained vulnerable.

Once within the walls, he bid goodbye to the caravan’s headman.

“I’ll make sure your trunk reaches the Palace,” the headman assured him.

“Thank you.” Jarrett passed him a few more coins for his trouble and pressed through the crowd toward the Palace.

Jarrett wondered what he would face. How would the King react to his return? What urgent matter waited for him? Astride his gelding, Heartsblood, and pulling along his pack horse, he negotiated the bustle of the Middle Quarters. The familiar scents of animals, dung, and frying foods surrounded him. Noise and clatter rolled over the city like thunder. It was good to be home.

He considered visiting his parents’ house. However, if he went by his old home, his mother would insist he tell her everything that happened in the Forest. Never mind that he had written to them weekly. If he took off his gloves, she would be upset that he had left out something as important as being injured.

Clara had instructed him not to dawdle. He passed the turn off for their street.

The crowds thinned the closer they came to the High Circle, where the nobility lived and where the Palace was located. Heartsblood threw his head back and Jarrett patted the horse’s neck. Nudging with his heels, Jarrett urged his gelding into a trot.

Royal Guardsmen saluted him as he approached the Palace gates. One of them spoke to a page-boy, who took off up the white gravel road leading to the Palace itself.

“Been watching for me?” Jarrett asked.

One of them, a short man whose name Jarrett couldn’t remember, replied, “Her ladyship’s orders.”

Jarrett carried on. Several courtiers stood on the front lawn, dressed for an outing and waiting for their carriages. They stopped and stared as Jarrett passed. When he left for the Forest in the summer, no one tried to keep his reassignment a secret. However, aside from the Guards on duty, it seemed Clara had kept his return quiet, judging from the looks of open curiosity and surprise.

A sense of foreboding settled in the back of his neck. It was never a good idea to surprise the King and Jarrett hadn’t believed she could keep his return a secret. Otherwise, he would have sent a note on ahead.

Idiot girl. Clara could be brave, competent, and even wise. But she enjoyed tweaking the tail of the dragon far too much. King Emmerich seemed disappointed when Jarrett left but what if the King had changed his mind in the intervening time?

At the stables, a stable hand, a servant, and a young boy in an unfamiliar, blue and silver uniform met him.

“Captain Jarrett,” the boy said, “you’re to come with me right away. Kessy will take your belongings to your new quarters.”

Jarrett dismounted. “Are you a page?”

“Yes, sir. I serve the Lady Seer.” Normally, pages wore a green tunic over brown trousers with a brown leather belt. This page, on the other hand, wore a deep blue tunic with silver edging over black trousers with a black belt.

Jarrett followed the boy into the Palace. “How many pages serve her ladyship?”

“Two. She gave us new uniforms because people kept trying to redirect us or order us around. She said we’re supposed to serve her ex-clu-sive-ly.”

He said the last word as if he wasn’t used to anything four syllables or longer. Jarrett wondered if he came from the Low Quarters. “What else has changed in the last two months?”

“Not a whole lot. The King’s aerial has gotten bigger and started hiccupping.” He laughed.

“What’s funny about the hiccups?”

“Because fire comes out when she hiccups. One time, she set a tapestry on fire and the guards had to hurry to put it out. The King laughed.”

It sounded like a nightmare. He could only imagine his replacement’s headache.

At least it isn’t my problem.

The Palace felt slightly warmer than the outside. Unfortunately, a charm set into place to keep the Palace cool in the summer meant it was hard to heat in the winter. Given the plethora of velvet tunics, wool dresses, and beribboned shawls, the courtiers had adapted.

The page took Jarrett to Clara’s quarters: a suite of rooms Marduk had laid aside especially for her. They weren’t as extensive as the Royal Wing but still impressive. Jarrett wondered if she still had the workroom where she made dresses.

The door to her private chambers opened. The page slipped past the man leaving.

Jarrett smiled and bowed. “General Asher.”

“Sergeant,” Asher said, closing the door behind him. “What brings you to Bertrand?”

Jarrett checked the urge to sigh. “So, she didn’t tell you. I’m the captain of her new personal guard.”

Asher’s brows rose as he processed this. “If I didn’t know this—”

“She hasn’t told His Majesty.”

“I’m sure it won’t be a problem.” But Asher grimaced anyway. Emmerich might not care that Jarrett had returned. However, he might care that Clara didn’t tell him that she had sent for Jarrett.

“How is Bran?” Jarrett asked. Bran had been a page who was unexpectedly gifted with the Sight by an aerial. After the fire that tore through the Low Quarters killed his mother, Asher had adopted the boy.

“Settling in. He’s more used to being a servant than having servants but he’s adjusting.”

“And your sister, Lady Giselle?”

“With child. She and her husband announced it only yesterday.”

“Carry to her my congratulations.”

“I will.” Asher’s lips twitched, as if he fought a smile. “For the sake of safety, I’m going to pretend I didn’t see you in the hall.”

“Good idea.”

“Captain.”

“General.”

He walked away. The door opened again and the page gestured for Jarrett to enter.

***

Jarrett strode through the door and cried, “Reporting for duty, your ladyship!”

It took a beat for the scene in front of him to register and then, all the breath left under a wave of shock.

Clara sat on the couch, every bit as pale and thin as the last time he saw her. Her dull hair hung in lank waves, brushing her shoulders, and dark circles smudged the underside of her eyes. She wore a burnt orange gown. It only served to make her appear more sallow. Brocade curtains over the windows and stale air heavy with the scent of herbs made the spacious room feel claustrophobic.

“Mother’s tits. Clara, what happened?”

Her lips formed a tired smile. “Sit, Jarrett.”

He sat beside her on the couch. He lifted a gloved hand to take hers but dropped it away at the last moment. “What happened? Why aren’t you better?”

“I was getting better. Slowly. Mother smothered me with attention, tonics, and scolds but it helped. Emmerich kept finding excuses to see me, no matter how often Mother tried to warn him off. Then, an assassin poisoned me a little over four weeks ago.”

Her statement was so matter-of-fact, Jarrett wasn’t sure he heard her correctly. “Poisoned you?”

“Aye. It was kept about as quiet as Emmerich could manage. He forbade anyone who knew to speak of it. Officially, I’ve sickened with a stomach ailment. That’s sort of true, I suppose.”

“That explains why none of my friends told me of it in their letters.”

“I wrote you. Why didn’t you respond?”

“I didn’t receive your letters. Did you receive mine?”

She raised a brow. “No.”

A heavy pause passed between them.

He asked, “Did they catch the poisoner?”

“No.”

“This is why the King wants you to have your own guard?”

“Aye. My only condition was that I get to be the one who chooses the captain.”

“You said the story was exciting. You nearly dying is not exciting.” He could live without ever hearing such a tale again.

“It did get me out of a boring dinner party.”

Jarrett pursed his lips. “So you want me to find the man who hired the poisoner?”

“No. Lord Bruin and General Asher are investigating. In fact, Asher was here a moment ago updating me on how little progress they’re making.” She took a goblet from the table. Her hand shook and it began to slip out of her fingers.

Jarrett grabbed it. It felt light to him, being only half full of water. Clara’s face closed into a stony expression.

“May I?” he asked.

“It’s better than spilling it.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

He held it to her lips. Clara cupped her hand over his gloved fingers as she drank from it. After she pulled away, he returned it to the table.

Clara cleared her throat. “What I need you to do is different. Mistress Catriona discovered several of her new maids were slaves.”

“Slaves in the Palace?”

“She was devastated at the discovery.” Her face hardened. “There shouldn’t be slaves this far south. There shouldn’t be slaves at all but you know how the North is.”

“How many?”

“Three. The women are too afraid to talk. I need you to find out who owned them and bring the slavers to justice. Bruin can’t do it because he’s too busy trying to find my would-be killer.”

“As captain of your personal guard, it should be me who tracks your enemy. Let the Palace and City Guards search for these slavers. How did they know they were slaves, anyway? They couldn’t have been wearing collars.”

“One of them got hurt. When the healer treated her, he found a brand. A slaver branded her, Jarrett.” Color rushed to her face and a glimmer of the old Clara lit up her hazel green eyes. “If I ever meet the man who did that, I’ll see how he likes a brand. After the discovery, Catriona ordered for all the servants to be inspected. Matthias—” She licked her lips. “Matthias, your replacement, had sketches done.”

“I’ll investigate but—”

“Emmerich doesn’t want too many people involved in the search for the poisoner’s employer in case it was engineered by someone living in the Palace. He doesn’t want to scare the person off.”

Jarrett snorted. “I’m fully capable of being discreet.”

“At any rate, you’ll have help. I told Matthias and Captain Tarsus of the City Guard to help whoever I send to investigate.”

“You didn’t tell them it was me?”

“I’ve been keeping your return a surprise.”

“Why didn’t you at least tell Asher?”

“Because he would have told Emmerich. I even requested a list of possible candidates from Emmerich to make him think I wasn’t considering you.”

Jarrett sighed. “Clara, why wouldn’t you want the King to know?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Because I know there has to be more to you leaving. I didn’t want to hear him say no.”

“Clara, I left because I am not worthy to be captain of anything. I made two terrible mistakes. One, I blindly trusted Valiance when I had reason not to. Hells, he tried to kill you or did you forget that?” The guilt of that throbbed in him like a wound.

“And one of your men stopped—”

He jerked a hand up to cut her off. “Secondly, I shouldn’t have returned without you. I should have forced Heartsblood onto that road or found a farmer to sell me their pony or anything else save return without you. I disobeyed a direct order. Only the fact that Emmerich needed a soldier he knew in charge of his guard kept me out of the goal. What kept him from dismissing me right after Remus died, I don’t know. Maybe he does believe I did all I could. But I couldn’t wear the scarlet any longer. It was entirely my decision.” He busied himself for a moment with adjusting his gloves before looking back at her. “There are plenty of soldiers out there who would make good captains of your guard. Why did you bring me back?”

Her gaze slid away. “I need an ally.”

Jarrett’s brows rose. “What?”

“I can’t talk about it yet. But there are—” Her breath caught in her throat. “I’m going to need a friend.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jarrett, trust me when I tell you there’s a purpose to this. I need you to trust me. Please.”

The last time he trusted her, it ended with him going into the Eastern Forest in self-exile. He didn’t want to do so again. But desperation filled Clara’s wide eyes. Like last time, she would not ask for the difficult or near impossible unless she felt it to be necessary.

He let out a long breath. “All right. I trust you.” Child save me.

“Thank you. You probably want a copy of the order putting the captain of my guard under my authority?”

“I do. The military runs on paperwork, after all.”

“Harmony?”

For the first time, Jarrett noticed a pair of twins sitting at a desk in the corner. Identical in nearly every way, only dressed in different colors.

One of the twins, the one in pale blue, stood. “Yes, your ladyship?”

“Do you have a copy of King Emmerich’s order made?”

“I do. I copied it for Captain Jarrett.”

“Good. Make sure he has it before he goes.”

Harmony curtsied and went to a newly installed set of cubby-holes.

“Harmony and Melody,” Clara said, “are my ladies-in-waiting. Harmony is my secretary and scribe. Melody knows protocol and etiquette. Emmerich intended me to start receiving audiences.”

“I see. And where am I being quartered?”

“Your bedchamber is across the hall.”

“So close?” he asked.

“Your job is to protect me, remember? I’ve already designed uniforms as well. You’ll find yours in your room. The armorer has the rest.”

When he protected the King, he hadn’t slept in the Royal Wing. Either they had no better place to put him or Clara truly feared another attempt. “If that’s your wish. When do I meet the other members of your Guard?”

“I was going to leave that to you. You know who would serve better. Captain Matthias expects my Captain to redirect his men.”

“I’ll talk to him immediately.”

Harmony brought over a scroll and handed it to Jarrett.

“You should go,” Clara said. “Mother doesn’t want me to keep visitors for too long. I tire easily.” She ran a hand over her face. Her shoulders drooped more than when he first came in.

Jarrett turned the scroll in his fingers. “When are you going to tell the King I’m back?”

“Tonight. He has dinner with me once a week. He would come more often but both Healer Paula and Mother say it would exhaust me.”

Healer Paula attending to Clara? Jarrett wondered, again, about the rumors regarding the affair between Paula and Emmerich. What man would put his mistress in charge of the well-being of his betrothed? Disgust for the King stirred in his gut.

“How is your mother doing?” Jarrett asked.

“She’s well. We’re still mourning my father.”

“I’m sorry he passed away.”

“Thank you.” Clara forced a small smile.

He stood. “Good day, your ladyship.” He bowed deeply.

“I kept my promise, you know, about letting others take care of me. I can’t help it if my enemies want to see me dead.”

Jarrett smiled, remembering their last conversation and the plea he had made out of guilt. He hadn’t expected her to keep that promise. It pleased him that she did. “Emmerich had a traitor try to kill him last winter. It seems it’s a fashion now.”

“I can’t wait for it to go out of style.”

***

The moment the door closed behind Jarrett, Clara slumped into her pillows. The headache thumping in her skull increased in tempo. The conversation with him, though, was worth the pain. She’d been worrying about him.

“My lady?” Melody stood. “Shall I send for Lady Thalia?”

“No.”

Harmony poured more water into the goblet. “May I speak freely, my lady?”

“Have I ever told you not to?” Clara rubbed her eyes.

“You should have told Captain Jarrett about the vision.”

“I will. It needs to be the right moment, that’s all.”

“He can’t help you if he doesn’t know.”

Clara wanted her to be quiet. She wanted everyone—everything—to be quiet and stop moving. Even the rough embroidery of the pillows propping her irritated. The shadows whispered again, their words muffled and unintelligible. She grit her teeth. “I need one of Mother’s tonics.”

Maybe she should tell Jarrett the truth right away. No one enjoyed being used; Clara knew that from experience. However, the idea of telling him the whole truth made her feel more ill than the agony tearing through her skull. It was fine to tell Mother or Harmony or Melody. They had no real influence on what happened in the Palace or in the kingdom. They were confidantes and friends. But to tell Jarrett? It would become official.

Also, Jarrett would try to talk her out of what she needed to do. She wasn’t sure she could withstand that, if her resolve could remain strong. But if he agreed with her, that was worse. A war raged inside of her, now. Part of her knew she was right and part of her wanted, so much, to be wrong.

A wooden cup was pressed into her hand. She opened her eyes.

A stranger stared at her with deep blue eyes. He wore his red-blond hair in a braid draping over his shoulder. The traces of a beard graced his chin and upper lip. A breeze, heavy with the promise of snow, swept over them. Slowly, he leaned forward for a kiss.

With a gasp, Clara jerked back. The cup clattered to the floor, spilling dark liquid into the rich carpet.

“My lady?” Harmony stared at her with concern. “Are you all right? Melody, fetch a rag to clean this up.”

“I’m fine.” She scrubbed her face with both hands even as hot tears pricked her eyes. “I’m fine.”

But the shadows whispered words she couldn’t make out and a pressure weighed on her, as if everything around her was a mere veil and the future or the past or another reality altogether yearned to come through.

“I need Mother,” she whispered.

Melody dropped the rag she’d been using to mop up the mess and ran out of the room. Harmony sat beside her and took her hand. Clara gripped it until her knuckles turned white.

 


 

Emmerich knocked on the door. One of the twins—he could never tell which—answered and curtsied deeply.

“Her ladyship will be out soon, Your Majesty,” she said.

“Good. I brought her flowers.” He gave the maid a bouquet of roses. A fire crackled in the double-sided fireplace, adding a layer of burning wood smell to the omnipresent haze of herbs. Emmerich supposed Clara was used to it but it almost left him feeling stifled.

The woman returned to Clara’s bedchamber. As she passed through the curtain, he heard Thalia’s gentle voice. He pressed his lips into a thin line. No matter how hard he tried, he honestly couldn’t bring himself to completely trust the witch. Whenever he saw her, he always wondered if other motives lurked behind her polite smile and studied concern, if Remus’s treachery ran in the family. Such an idea cast doubt on Clara and he rejected it with every ounce of his soul.

Emmerich strolled over to the table set for their dinner. A small ham sat in pride of place. Thalia, apparently, gave the approval for Clara to take more solid food. Thank the Mother. He insisted on eating whatever she ate so she wouldn’t feel bad, and to encourage her to go along with the prescribed food. He had gotten tired of broth and boiled vegetables, however.

He glanced at the fabric swathing the closed windows. The evening carried a chill but he longed to throw them open to air out the room.

“Your Majesty?” Lady Thalia, stepping out of the bedchamber, drew the curtains closed behind her and curtsied.

“My lady. How are you this evening?”

“I am well. Sire, I hope you do not find this impertinent but my daughter had a trying day. I hope you will not linger too long over dinner.”

Despite Emmerich assigning Healer Paula to tend to Clara, Thalia considered herself in charge of her daughter’s well-being. He still remembered the agonizingly polite argument over him even seeing Clara once a week. He pushed for daily but even Paula objected. If Paula hadn’t spoken, Emmerich would have suspected motives other than Clara’s well-being. It was a good thing he had found a secret way around that.

He forced a small smile. “Her health is important to me, Lady Thalia. I won’t exhaust her. Is Lady Clara improving any at all?”

“Small improvements.”

“Maybe if she took more exercise? It can’t be healthy for her to remain in her rooms all the time.”

“My daughter’s ailment is not of the normal kind. Trust me when I tell you, going outside and being among others will only exacerbate it.”

“She doesn’t need to be around others. I can clear the riding trails or—”

“I beg His Majesty to trust in my judgment.” She paused. “And Healer Paula agrees with me.”

As if he didn’t already know. Emmerich made a mental note to talk to Paula again about this. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Good evening, my lady.”

Her lips thinned but she acquiesced to the unspoken dismissal. When the lady-in-waiting closed the door behind her, Emmerich relaxed with a long blow of breath. He shrugged out of his heavy scarlet robe as if, with a roll of his shoulders, he rid himself of the day.

With a rustle of fabric, Clara entered the sitting room. Her burnt orange gown made her skin pale to the point of translucence. The circles under her eyes were bruise-dark. Emmerich tossed his robe over the back of an armchair and strode over to her.

“My love,” he said, cupping the back of her neck with his hand. He bent his head for a brief kiss. “How do you feel?”

“I’m fine.” She stepped out of his touch. “I only have a small headache.”

He caught her hand. “Maybe I can help?” He kissed her palm. The scent of lilac filled his nose.

She smiled and stepped close to him. “I only need to eat. Thank you for the roses.”

Emmerich wrapped his other arm around her waist to pull her tight against him. “Since you’re not allowed outside, I brought the garden to you.”

With his other hand, he twined fingers with her. She laid her head against his chest with a sigh, relaxing against him. She weighed so little, it was almost nothing to hold her like this. He studied their clasped hands. His hand was broad, the fingers blunt, and a scar snaked across the knuckles. Clara’s hand was soft, all her callouses from her time as a slave faded away. Fingers were slim and ended in trimmed nails. Her hand looked impossibly small and dainty in his and he didn’t want to believe it.

He laid his cheek on top of her head. Closing out everything else, he focused on the brush of her breath against his tunic and the slow thud of her heart against his ribs. To stay like this forever, he wished.

A woman cleared her throat. The other lady-in-waiting regarded the pair.

“Right.” Emmerich released Clara. “We have chaperones.”

“You always forget.” She walked over to the table.

He pulled the chair back for her.

“How’s Niall?” she asked. “I don’t see her.”

“She’s with Bruin. They’re still trying to figure out how they misidentified her gender.” He sat in the other chair.

“The answer is obvious. Aerials are all brightly colored until the females are ready to mate. That would explain why they only saw dull colored ones with fledglings.”

“Maybe. But you know Bruin. He has to investigate everything. Speaking of investigating, there’s no news on our enemy. We may have to wait for him to make another move.” He clenched his jaw. “And I’ll kill him before he gets near you.”

“Why him? Can’t my adversary be a woman?”

He considered the question. “Somehow, that notion is more terrifying. I’ll pass the idea along.”

“You don’t need to. I told Asher when he came to see me today. He said he’d talk to Bruin the next time they met.”

They ate in silence for a while. Clara mostly picked at her food. The twins sat in a far corner of the room, embroidering and pretending they weren’t there.

“I have a surprise for you,” Clara said.

Emmerich cleared his mouth with a sip of ale. “Oh?”

“I’ve selected the captain for my personal guard.”

“Good. I don’t know why you’ve been waiting for so long.”

“Well, I had made the decision. I was only waiting for him to arrive.”

He dropped his belt knife, feeling a certainty fill his gut. “You summoned Jarrett.”

“He’s probably across the hall right now.”

Emmerich felt a surge of jealousy. After Jarrett left, Clara didn’t mention him again, as if she’d forgotten him as soon as his left. He did find it odd she hadn’t accused him of sending Jarrett away. Emmerich didn’t think the two had become particularly close. He wasn’t sure if summoning Jarrett signaled friendship or trust or a combination of the two.

He will get to see her more than me.

Realizing he’d let silence drag on for too long, he said, “I’m not sure that’s wise.”

“Summoning him or putting him in the room across from me?”

“Both. Many people in the Court blame Jarrett for Valiance’s treachery. And there are days when I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him for leaving you in the Larkspurs.”

“I told him to.”

“I know. But he shouldn’t have listened.”

“He didn’t. I had to run off.”

Disturbingly, this was Clara’s answer to nearly everything. He still half-expected her to get it in her head to climb out of the window for an adventure or as an escape. “That’s not the point.”

“He made a mistake with Valiance but everyone deserves second chances.”

“There’s also a rumor I sent him away.”

“Did you?” She dropped her knife, the cutlery hitting the table with a clack, her expression carefully blank.

“What do you think?” Why did it take you two months to bring it up?

“I think you’re capable of it.”

“I didn’t send him away. He sent himself. I do want him a little further away from you.”

“Why?”

“Because having an unattached man living across from an unattached woman encourages rumors and speculation.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

A knock on the door interrupted them. Emmerich quietly thanked any gods listening. A lady-in-waiting opened the door slightly and carried on a low conversation.

She closed the door and said, “Captain Jarrett is here to see you, my lady.”

“Let him in,” Clara said.

Jarrett, resplendent in a deep blue surcoat and silvery chain mail, bowed. “Your Majesty. My lady. I came to make sure all is well before I retired for the night.”

“I’m fine,” she said, smiling slightly. “Thank you.”

“Your Majesty, I’m glad you’re here. Her ladyship said General Asher and Lord Bruin are searching for whoever tried to poison her?”

Emmerich nodded. “It’s mostly Bruin since he has more contacts than Asher. They aren’t making much in the way of progress, I’m afraid.”

“I wish to take over. As Captain of the Seer’s Guard, it’s my responsibility.”

Emmerich didn’t blame Jarrett for what happened with Valiance even as he acknowledged that Jarrett allowed blind trust to permit a situation that could have been avoided. And Emmerich couldn’t blame him for Clara running off from him. Emmerich kept telling himself this to keep from losing his temper. Again. Paula told him he needed better control of it. But given the past, could he trust the man with a mission of such importance?

Glancing at Clara, he realized he already was, if he allowed the man to remain captain of Clara’s guard.

“You can assist Bruin,” he said, finally. “I’ll let Asher know it’s no longer his concern.”

“What of the slaves?” Clara asked. “We can’t let that go.”

Jarrett said, “I won’t. The two may even be related. It’s a hell of a coincidence, if not.”

“Good.” She rubbed her face.

Emmerich eyed Jarrett and nodded at the door.

“If you’ll excuse me, Your Majesty. My lady.” Jarrett bowed and walked out.

“Clara, I—what’s wrong?”

Clara slumped forward, cradling her head in her hands. “I got dizzy all of a sudden.”

He came over to her. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“I don’t want to go. Please.”

Emmerich lifted her in his arms. She felt as light as feather pillows. It turned his stomach and made him angry, all at once. If killing or beating an enemy made her better, he would do it with his hands and teeth.

He laid her onto the mattress. As he pulled away, she clutched at his sleeve.

“Stay with me,” she whispered, her eyes clenched closed.

With quick movements, he toed off his boots and carefully lay beside her. He cradled Clara against him, running a hand soothingly over her back. Movement beyond the curtains drew his attention. One of the maids stared back at him for a brief moment before she turned away, leaving the pair alone.

***

Emmerich paused in the courtyard outside the Academy. In the distance, a cat yowled for his mate, an eerie screech in the otherwise quiet night. He had left Clara sleeping. The image of her, so still and pale, haunted him with visions of coffins and palls.

He studied the starry autumn sky. The air tasted of frost, numbing his cheeks, and his breath made vapor in the breeze. They hadn’t been able to identify the poison used on her and it continued to affect her, as if killing her moment by moment. Lack of answers or improvement frustrated him. His mind wandered to Lady Thalia and a dark suspicion burned.

The door leading into the Academy opened and Niall burst onto the narrow porch with a cry of pure joy. She ran forward several paces, leapt off the top step, and glided onto the flagstones. Her claws scrabbled against the ground as she ran over to him.

Emmerich braced his feet and let the feathered lizard fall against him. Niall now came to a few inches above his knee and weighed enough to knock a man over with her exuberance. She stood on her back legs, her arms wrapped around his waist and her long, sinewy neck stretched, burying her face into his neck.

“Hello, sweetling,” he said, petting her.

Lord Bruin approached. “I was going to bring her to you, Your Majesty.”

“I needed the walk.”

“Is all well, sire?”

“Not as long as Clara remains ill and her poisoner walks free.”

“I’m doing all I can.”

“I know. And you’re certain Barkeley’s faction isn’t behind this?”

After Remus’s attack, voices arose in Court demanding all Tierans be expelled from the kingdom, not just the wizards. Clara’s Tieran mother, Lady Thalia, made her a target of their ire as well. These malcontents coalesced under Lord Barkeley’s leadership, the same one serving on the Council and whose son Bran accidentally killed. They held secret meetings, being careful not to socialize too much at Court functions. They honestly thought no one knew, to Emmerich’s amusement.

Bruin smiled. “I’m positive, Your Majesty. So far, all their talk is harmless and Barkeley’s greatest threat is toward your betrothal with Lady Clara.”

“Keep a close watch, nonetheless. You’ll have new help, by the way. Clara summoned Jarrett to be the captain of her new guard and he’s insisting on helping with the search.”

An emotion flickered over Bruin’s face too fast to be identified.

“That’s good,” Bruin replied. “I’m happy to hear he’s back—and not only because I can use all the help I can get.” He crossed his arms. “I find Niall’s connection with you fascinating. One day, I want to study it more closely. Understanding how her emotions can affect you, as well as the other way around, would help us understand aerials in general. Perhaps even help us make people more accepting of them.”

“We would need to find the aerials first. As long as they remain hidden, I cannot help them. I want to help them.” He smiled at Niall. “I think they enrich us and I don’t want what happened to Niall’s mother to happen to another aerial.” The images of Niall’s mother being stomped to death flashed through Emmerich’s mind and his stomach quailed.

Never again.

“I could set apprentices on the task. It would give Bran a task to do other than sulk in class.”

“Bran sulking?” Emmerich raised a brow. He couldn’t envision it. The boy was an adult in child’s clothes, an unfortunate side effect of being orphaned young after a childhood in the Low Quarters.

“My same reaction, sire. I’ve spoken to General Asher about it but he says all is well at home. Bran won’t explain what’s wrong.”

“He may not be adjusting to nobility. I know I fight the urge to sulk on occasion.”

“You sulk in your own way, sire.” The wizard smiled.

Emmerich chose to ignore that. “Did you learn anything tonight?”

“Niall tolerated our spells and examinations.” He gave the aerial a fond smile. “She has the slits of a female aerial but the coloring of a male. Or, what we assume to be a male. There are natural aberrations where a creature is born with the characteristics of both genders. It could be as simple as that.”

“Lady Clara believes all aerials appear the same until the females mate.”

“Could be. We’ll need to observe a family of aerials to know the truth of the matter.”

“And so we return to the need to find them. Quietly.” The last thing Emmerich wanted was another hysterical aerial hunt.

“I can handle quiet, sire.”

The last time Bruin tried to be quiet, half of the Low Quarters burned to the ground. The enemy’s trickery made a good enough extenuating circumstance, preventing Emmerich from dismissing Bruin. Or Asher, who had been accompanying the wizard at that time. Even if the two had arranged for a larger guard, they still would have been too late. Bruin stared off into the distance with a carefully blank expression, as if he was thinking the same.

“Good night, Bruin.”

“Good night, Your Majesty.”

Emmerich walked back toward the main Palace. Niall’s claws made sharp clicking sounds as she trailed beside him. There were so many mysteries fogging the Palace these days and Emmerich wished all of them were as simple as aerials.

Niall hiccupped and a lance of bright flame lit the night. Emmerich laughed.