"Ow! That was my foot, Christopher!"
"Well, move over!"
"There's no room!"
"If you two don't stop bickering I'm throwing both of you out!"
Mally found the conversation interesting. Her eyes were shut and her brain was moving slowly as if it was two steps behind the voices.
Mally's mouth twisted into a smile at hearing that.
"Mally? Mally, can you hear us?"
Mally slowly opened her eyes. She was lying on a bed with a huge crowd of people surrounding it.
"Talking that loud, who wouldn't?" she asked.
Mally smiled widely at the reaction her question caused. Laughter and cheering filled the room. Ivan, Galen, Edwin, Olive, Bob, Lita, Christopher, Nathan, Archie, Rosie, Sammy—all of them! All of the servants and nearly all the original rebels were squeezed into the sick room.
"Where's Gerda!" Mally demanded, realizing who she couldn't easily see.
"Over here!" came Gerda's slightly muffled reply. Her hand waved energetically around Mildred's shoulder.
"Now you've seen that she's fine, so you can all go," Gladys ordered. "Shoo!"
There was instant uproar. Mally watched in amusement as Gladys forced her visitors out. But she did not even bother to prod Galen, Ivan, or Lita. They settled down into chairs around her bed. Gladys shut the door at the end of the hall and hurried back to Mally's bedside. After a quick check, with a fair amount of fussing, she deemed Mally stable and left the four alone. With help from Lita, Mally sat up against a stack of pillows.
"I'm so glad you're alright. I thought when you fainted … but Galen got to you …" Lita blinked rapidly.
"What's been happening? How long has it been?"
"Just a few hours. It's eight in the morning," said Ivan. A huge grin suddenly spread across his face. His right eye was heavily blackened and bruised; Lita looked like she had fought out of a thicket; Galen had a heavy bandage wrapped around his left wrist. "I've never been more terrified in my life. I think watching you fight with Romore took five years off me."
Lita and Galen laughed. Mally smiled slightly before asking quietly, "Did we lose anyone?"
The three were instantly silent.
"About fifteen casualties," Ivan answered.
"What about Molick?"
"Dead," Galen replied shortly.
When Ivan and Lita didn't expand, Mally took the hint.
"Were all the knights…?" Mally didn't want to finish her question.
"No," said Ivan. "We feel that they deserve some time to stew on what they did to us. We've freed the prisoners and put the knights behind bars."
"What about Sir Brian? Gibbs? You didn't lock them up?!" Mally would not stand for that! She still didn't understand their actions, but they had saved their lives.
"No," said Galen. "They're actually waiting outside." Galen looked suddenly uncomfortable and Ivan was scowling. "They want to talk to you."
Mally was surprised, but she quickly nodded her head. Ivan, looking completely distrustful, rose and opened the door. He murmured something and Gibbs and Sir Brian stepped into the room and stood before her bed.
Gibbs had a nasty purple lump on the side of his head and Sir Brian walked with a heavy limp. But upon seeing her, they both lowered onto one knee.
"Don't do that!" Mally said quickly. "Sit instead, please." Mally pointed at the two chairs Galen and Ivan had abandoned. Instead they stood glaring, arms crossed, as if waiting for Gibbs and Sir Brian to make a move.
Gibbs blinked his tiny eyes in mild surprise before settling into the chair beside Lita. Lita stared at Gibbs as if he were from another world.
"Your Majesty," Gibbs spoke softly, and the oil in his voice didn't make Mally shiver. "We wish to explain ourselves."
And they did. Mally listened as Gibbs and Sir Brian told their side of the story, ever since she had disappeared from the castle, sixteen years ago. They told her how they pretended to be avid followers of Molick while secretly going against him any way they could think of.
"And how do we know you're not acting now?" Ivan demanded. "I wouldn't think the dungeons would agree with you, Gibbs."
"You don't," he replied simply. "You'll have to decide that for yourselves."
Ivan flushed and opened his mouth to retort, but Mally raised her hand.
"I want to hear them, Ivan," she said quietly.
Gibbs once again looked at Mally with surprise. He told her that he had decided to join the tax collectors. Periodically, so as not to arouse suspicion, Sir Brain would come with him on his trip. Gibbs would distract the members of the household while Sir Brian discreetly dropped coins here and there.
"My mother thought it was you," Mally said to Sir Brian. "Who put gold in our tea canister."
"I think some people suspected," Sir Brian agreed. "But I think they had a hard time believing it."
"Did you recognize me?" Mally asked Gibbs. "From Blighten?"
"Yes. You're hard to forget. When I heard the story that you came from Halspeare, I got nervous. And when Molick decided to check up on you, I managed to get Sir Brian to go along with him."
"But I fiddled with the wheels of our carriage so that we were stuck on the outskirts of the city. And luckily, it poured all day. He finally decided to turn back when the wheels were fixed."
"Why did you bother?" Mally asked. "Did you know who I really was?"
"We had no idea as to your true identity," said Gibbs. "We had accepted your supposed death years ago."
"Then why? Why try so hard to keep Molick from finding out I had lied to him?" Mally repeated.
"Because we didn't want him to," he said.
Mally stared at the two men before her. A silence stretched. It was as if Gibbs and Sir Brian sensed that their verdict was close at hand and bowed their heads. Mally wanted to say something, but the words evaded her.
"Why did you have to keep me cleaning daggers all night?" Lita exploded to the silent room.
Gibbs turned to her in surprise. Sir Brian began to laugh.
"We had to periodically make your days difficult," Gibbs explained, "to keep our roles believable. We didn't enjoy it, but we had no choice."
"Difficult?" Lita repeated hoarsely. "Make our lives … difficult?"
Gibbs had the grace to look rather embarrassed.
"My apologies—but I must tell you—you clean daggers better than anyone."
Lita wrinkled her nose, clearly unsure whether to the pleased by the compliment or not.
Shortly afterward, Gibbs and Sir Brian were looked over by Gladys, and then left to help see to the flames in the city. Some were still being put out. Gladys shooed Lita, Galen, and Ivan out after them, saying Mally needed rest.
"I just have a cut," Mally argued as Lita shut the sickroom door with a wink.
"A cut? That man nearly sliced you in half!"
The sickroom door opened again and Mally cried out in joy and surprise. Her mother Susie stepped into the room, looking very out of place. The moment Susie saw her, she was at her bedside, squeezing her in the tightest of hugs.
"I just got into the city," said Susie breathlessly. "The roads have never been more crowded. It took me twice as long. I would have come with Allen, but I decided to round up more supporters." Susie took a step back and stared at Mally fiercely. "How are you?"
"Wonderful now that you're here," Mally said with a smile.
Susie hugged her again.
Even though Gladys had given strict orders as to when people could visit Mally and how many at a time, people still snuck in. Archie made a point of bringing Mally goblets of hot apple cider and cakes and cookies every hour. Mally was deeply moved when Nanette appeared with Cayla—they stayed with her for two hours. Lita told her of the numerous strangers coming to the city, all trying to see her. Mally began to worry about what inevitably awaited her in the near future. Ruling a kingdom? She didn't know where to start. The people expected so much from her. They thought that now, because she was here, everything would be put right again. Mally didn't know how to tell them that they would probably be better off picking someone who had some kind of experience. But Mally knew they would never hear of it. She was their hope. Their lost heir. They would never let her go again.
Since Mally herself was finding it difficult to get used to her new title, she suspected her mother didn't have the faintest idea how to handle the interest she was attracting, as the woman who had raised Lenzar's princess. Susie was just as famous as Mally. Just as respectfully treated as anyone who had fought in the battle.
"It's a bit odd," she admitted to Mally. Archie and Nathan had personally helped find her a room and she was now staying in the castle while Mally recovered. "People staring and thanking me."
Mally grinned. A knock sounded on the door and turning, the two saw Sir Brian standing in the doorway.
"It's time," he smiled.
It was the third day after the battle and the people couldn't be denied any longer. They wanted to see their princess on her rightful pedestal. Gladys was firm and clear that Mally could not handle too much commotion or excitement and would have to leave early, but she allowed the feast. For that's what it was. A celebration feast for the new kingdom and a welcoming home to their princess.
Lita, Meriyal, and Nanette had dressed her in a long white gown while Susie pinned back a few curls. Mally could not walk to the dining chamber so Sir Brian was to carry her.
"Careful, now. Go slow, Sir Brian," fussed Gladys as they made their way down.
By the time they reached the great hall, now clean of blood and broken statues, Mally could hear the muffled buzz of the gathering in the dining chamber. She looked anxiously at her mother. Susie smiled and squeezed her shoulder. Standing beside the closed doors to the chamber was Archie, his shiny bald pate glistening, his chest puffed out like a rooster's, his huge mustache fluffed. He wasn't dressed in his flour-dusted apron. Silver buttons twinkled on the chest of his spiffy coat.
"Ready, Your Majesty?" he asked with a wink.
Mally blushed and nodded.
Archie cleared his voice, spun around with a flourish, and pushed the doors open. Mally's breath caught in her throat and she was glad to be in Sir Brian's arms because she thought her legs might have given out at the sight before her. The hall was filled. Every seat, every bench, every space along the walls was occupied by the people of Lenzar. The moment the doors swung open, sound ceased. All heads turned to them and as one, with a deafening scraping of benches, the people rose.
"Her Royal Highness, Princess Avona," Archie announced in a booming baritone.
Sir Brian stepped forward, Susie, Nanette, Meriyal, Lita, and Gladys following behind. As Mally was carried past the people, they bowed or curtsied, lowering their heads in respect. Mally blushed deeper as the silence intensified. This was too much. This was all too much.
After what seemed like an eternity, Sir Brian finally reached the long head table and carefully lowered Mally into the giant chair in the center. Galen and Ivan stood on her right and along that side of the table ran more rebel members. Susie took her place at Mally's left with Lita, Nanette, Meriyal and Gladys beside her. She spotted Sir Leon Gibbs farther down the table, his black eyes twinkling, his mouth curled into a smile that Mally could only describe as smug. Everyone was looking at her, and Mally suddenly realized what they were waiting for.
"Please, sit," said Mally, her small voice clear in the silent hall.
As one, they sat and the noise and commotion commenced. Food and drink were brought out, fiddles and drums sounded in a corner, and Mally found herself talking and laughing with everyone. People didn't stay seated for long… there was too much excitement. Mally had a constant stream of people at her chair.
The more hours that passed, the louder and merrier the party became. Mally spotted Bob Kettle doing a lopsided jig with his walking stick before the fiddlers. Dancing had broken out and Mally was clapping along with all the rest. When Archie pecked a furiously blushing Meriyal on the cheek, Mally, along with the rest of the servants, roared with laughter.
She might not know what the future had in store for her, and she might dread it deeply, but for that moment, Mally's worries were forgotten and only happiness and joy filled her being.
It was two weeks later and Mally had recovered from her injuries. She had spent hours in meetings trying to put Lenzar back together. She had created a council of advisors with many of the rebels as its members. The knights were given new laws and Gibbs and Sir Brian were busy creating a new system to find and train recruits. The servants were given more rooms to sleep in, with better lighting and heat accommodations.
Mally had moved into the King's Chamber and her mother had taken the adjoining room. She knew it would be odd for her to be sharing a room with Lita and Gerda. Her new position made her uncomfortable around her friends. She understood the different role she was expected to play now—a princess's best friends were not the servants, but Mally couldn't even imagine this. She couldn't imagine ignoring Lita. Couldn't imagine ordering her around. When she confessed this to Lita, she laughed.
"I won't ignore you, Mally, as long as you don't ignore me!"
Mally couldn't sleep in her new chamber. She had half a mind to join her mother. Her chamber was so very large and grand. The bed could fit six easily. The pillows were of the best goose down, the sheets were silky and smooth, the mattress warm and thick. But she couldn't sleep. No matter how many ways she turned and fluffed the pillows, she couldn't get comfortable. Huffing, she sat up, feeling like a mouse in a basketful of sheets. She lit a few candles and drew her knees into her chest. The fire was still burning nicely. Its flickering flames threw orange light on the walls. Her eyes roamed the room until they landed on the two large portraits of her mother and father.
It was odd, she suddenly thought, that Romore had kept them for all these years. They were in fact the only remaining portraits of King Sebastian and Queen Amara. The knights had destroyed all the others. Why would Romore want to save these? These that were in his personal chamber? Perhaps he thought of them as trophies? The thought made Mally grimace.
She stared at them. For the first time, she purposefully took in every detail of their faces. Yes, that was her nose and those were her freckles. She could see a resemblance in the cheekbones. Certainly King Sebastian's curly hair was just as wild as hers.
Mally blinked, suddenly thinking of the lazy locks that fell across Galen's forehead. She rested her chin on her bent knees and stared at the sheets with unfocused eyes. She hadn't seen him since the feast. Though, she argued silently, she hadn't had much of a chance to leave the castle. Meriyal, Evelyn, and Mildred had spent an entire day fitting her for dresses. She had been spending hours each day with Adam and Cian, the rebel leaders that were now on her council, discussing what actions to take. Even with Lita by her side, cracking jokes and taking walks in the castle's meadows with Sam, she felt something was missing. Her family was with her. She had been greatly entertained by her mother arguing with Archie over the best way to prepare black bonnet soup, and a radiant Gerda had admitted to her earlier that day that she and Nathan were going to be married.
Mally smiled at her feet thinking of the not-so-far-off marriage. But the smile on her face faltered as that strange emptiness touched her heart again. She glanced out the locked glass doors to her balcony, staring out at the dark city. She wondered if Galen was awake, too.
She knew her mother and Meriyal would be furious, but the next morning, Mally snuck out of the castle. She left a note pinned to her pillow, tied her new velvet cloak under her chin and retrieved Sam from the royal stables. It was just dawn. Weak, newborn rays were just beginning to caress the sky. The air was frigid and her cheeks stung as Sam galloped down the cobbled streets. Very few people had yet risen but the ones that had waved from their windows. Sam skidded to a halt outside the Lone Candle. Mally rushed inside, nearly tripping in her haste. The moment she entered she felt like a tropical bird in the snow. The silence that filled the room was overwhelming. Eyes latched onto her and Mally gulped. Embarrassed, Mally went to the counter where Olive and Edwin stood.
"What a pleasant surprise, Your Highness!" Olive cried, smiling widely. With the battle over and both sons safe, she had been much warmer to Mally.
"Thank you. I'm sorry to trouble you, but is Galen about?"
"He left about thirty minutes ago."
Mally's face fell.
"But you can probably find him on Baker's Hill," Olive suggested.
Mally waved goodbye and rushed back out of the inn. She mounted Sam and spurred him to the largest hill in Bosc. She wasn't surprised to be told that was were to find him—as she had seen on that first tour of the city, the view of the ocean from the hilltop was beaten only by the views from the castle's tallest towers. That was the one thing Mally liked about her new chamber. It had the most stunning view of the ocean.
Snow covered the ground and the bitter air whistled around Mally's ears as Sam galloped up Baker's sloping side. Mally pulled on the reigns when she spotted him. Galen leaned casually against a tall oak, staring at the pale sky. The snow crunching under her feet, Mally walked the final distance to him.
He looked over his shoulder and smiled slightly. Things had been odd between them since the feast. Whereas Ivan was in the castle night and day, Mally had not seen Galen. When she had first chosen the members for her council, Galen's name had been first on her list—but he had refused. Mally still didn't understand why.
"Are you mad at me?"
Galen's back stiffened and he turned to her in surprise.
"Then why haven't we seen each other?"
Galen let out a bitter laugh that sounded more like a snort.
"We're not really in the same social circle anymore, are we?"
His crossed arms tightened and Mally suddenly realized how thin his coat was. That he wore no gloves. An embarrassed heat flooded her cheeks and she wished she had put on her old cloak, patched and frayed.
"What do you mean?" Mally asked slowly, feeling her heart sink.
"You're the princess. I'm the son of an innkeeper."
"But I've missed you," said Mally.
Galen glanced at her and crossed his arms tighter.
"I've been having a hard time getting used to all of this," Mally explained. "I can't sleep, Archie thinks I'm losing my appetite, I can't go anywhere without three people following me … I—" Mally stared at him, trying to get him to understand the chaos inside her. The chaos she always felt when she thought about him, the chaos he caused when he wasn't with her. "I think I could handle all of this better if you were with me," she finished quietly.
"You have Ivan."
"I don't want Ivan," Mally shook her head. "Not like this." Mally took another step toward him. "Please, Galen. I … I want to be with you."
Galen stared at her as if he couldn't believe his ears.
"Didn't you hear what I said?" he asked incredulously.
Mally nodded, tears starting in her eyes.
"We can't be together," he continued. "I work at an inn—you rule the kingdom. Mally, please don't cry! It just won't work … they won't let it happen."
"Who won't?" Mally demanded. "The people? The council? Who, Galen? Who are you afraid of?"
"I don't know how to be a king!" Galen exploded and suddenly Mally realized that Galen had all the same fears she did.
She smiled timidly.
"Well, you're not alone. I don't know how to be a queen. But I'm figuring it out and I think having company could make things a whole lot easier."
Galen looked away from her and expelled a shaky breath, the icy air turning it to mist.
"Mom sent me out here because she's tired of seeing me so miserable," Galen admitted. "She thinks I'm scaring off the customers."
Mally laughed softly. They didn't say anything for a moment, each not looking at the other. Then suddenly a ringing filled the air. Mally and Galen both turned their eyes to Bosc Bell Tower, its bells gleaming in the sunlight, its chimes clear and jubilant.
"Bob's in the bell tower again," said Mally, smiling.
"No one can keep him away from it for long," Galen agreed. Mally risked a glance at Galen. There was a slight upward curve to his lips.
"You don't suppose in a castle that big," Galen asked slowly, "there's an open room?"
"Yes! Yes! Plenty to choose from!" Mally cried happily. She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him.
Sam looked at them, twitched his ears, and snorted before returning to nosing the snowy ground for a frozen blade of grass.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! :)