Chapter 19: A Brighter Dawn

Antonio did not think he would sleep, but he was awakened from a doze by the sound of the bedroom door opening. He sat up quickly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The lamps were still lit but the first light of dawn was visible through the sheers hanging over the windows. Doctor Olgin stepped from the bedroom looking haggard but satisfied.

Moretz immediately scrambled to his feet. "How is his majesty?"

"Better," Maura replied. "His fever broke about an hour ago. He is still unconscious, but his breathing and heartrate are normal."

"May I see him?" Antonio asked. He stood up and took an uncertain step toward the bedroom.

"Yes, of course." Maura turned to lead the way back into the bedroom with Antonio and Moretz on her heels. Antonio wasn't terribly surprised when his father's two bodyguards crowded in after them. As near as he could tell, not only had neither man slept, but they had not moved from either side of the door. Looking down at his father, Antonio felt a surge of fear. Although Edouard's chest rose and fell steadily, his face was pale and his eyes looked sunken. Maura put a hand on his arm. "Believe me, your highness, he looks much better than he did. The antidote worked."

"What about Kieran?" Moretz asked.

Maura smiled and pointed at the bed, drawing their attention to where Edouard's left hand was clasped in Kieran's right. "I did not put his majesty's hand there. I noticed it when I saw that Edouard's fever had broken. I think it likely Kieran will awaken on his own soon."

Moretz nodded. "Very good. I will inform her majesty and then go speak to Captain Frelling." He turned to Antonio. "Go wake the others. We'll meet in the dining room and I'll relay Frelling's report."

"All right." Antonio replied. He went first to Lida's suite, running all the way and nodding encouragement to the guards as he passed. Normally, at this hour, he would not have bothered to knock, but knowing that Eleanor was inside, he stopped at the hall door and rapped firmly on the panel. It opened quickly and a sleepy-looking maid, whose dress looked like she'd slept in it, curtsied hastily when she saw him.

"Good morning, your highness," she said, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of her skirt.

"Can you please wake her highness and Miss Alcasin? There is news."

"At once, your highness!" The girl's face flushed with worry as she darted across to the inner door and slipped inside.

Lida must have been awake already because she emerged immediately pulling on her dressing gown. Behind her, Eleanor peeked around the edge of the door, her hair tucked up into a satin cap. "What's happened?" Lida demanded.

"Doctor Olgin says Father is recovering," Antonio reported. "We are to meet with Mother and Moretz in the dining room. Moretz has gone to get a report from Captain Frelling."

"What a relief!" Lida exclaimed. "We'll be right there." She scooted back into the bedroom and Antonio left for Vincent and Geran's suite. Once again, he ran all the way. Word must have already started to spread among the guards. Many wore looks of relief and a few were smiling. He skidded to a halt outside Vincent's door but didn't even have time to raise his hand to knock.

Vincent snatched the door open from the inside. "Something's happened!"

"Father is recovering," Antonio replied. "We're to meet with the others in the dining room."

Vincent opened the door all the way, revealing Geran standing behind him with an anxious expression on his face. Both were already dressed. "Let's go." The three of them trotted to the dining room. A half-dozen servants were already there, setting out the buffet for breakfast.

Celli arrived looking like she probably hadn't slept, but she had changed and looked as impeccably elegant as she always did. "I assume Lida and Eleanor are on their way."

"Yes," Antonio replied. "I went there first but they needed to dress."

"Very good." Celli rubbed her hands together. "We'll eat first and then make plans for the day once Moretz reports on the night's activities. I want someone charged by the time Edouard regains consciousness."

Lida and Eleanor hurried in at that moment. To Antonio, it felt natural to see the two of them enter together, but Eleanor immediately hung back, her hands clasped together at her waist.

Celli gestured at the buffet. "Please, get your breakfast. It's going to be a busy day." But she stepped in front of Eleanor and put her hands on the young woman's shoulders. "Eleanor, I know this is difficult for you, but I must ask still more of you. I do not want people to know that Kieran was incapacitated by Edouard's collapse. But people are going to ask why we sent for you. I do not want to ask you to lie, but a plausible story that shields the full truth is necessary."

Eleanor chewed her lip for a moment, returning the queen's gaze. "Well," she said slowly, "something close to the truth is probably best. I could say that Lord Kieran and I once talked about my studies and he sent for me because he recalled discussing something that he thought pertained to the current situation and wanted me to refresh his memory."

Celli smiled broadly. "That's perfect!" she said. "And if anyone gets too pushy, you can say I asked you to keep our confidence and you don't want to jeopardize your parents standing in the kingdom by betraying my trust."

Eleanor nodded. "I can do that."

"Thank you, my dear. We owe you a great debt." Celli squeezed her shoulders.

"I am thankful that I was able to help," Eleanor responded.

Celli stepped back and waved a hand toward the buffet. "Let's eat."

As usual, Vincent and Geran were the first to start loading up their plates, but Eleanor waited until everyone else was moving along the buffet before joining the line. Antonio hung back and let Lida move past him so he could be beside Eleanor. "Were you able to sleep?"

"A little," Eleanor said. "Spending the night in Princess Lida's bedroom was not how I thought the day would end when I got up yesterday."

"Yesterday did not go as any of us thought it would," Antonio replied. He lowered his voice. "But I'm glad you're here."

Eleanor smiled shyly. "I still feel out of place," she said, also lowering her voice. "This is your private dining room."

"But we still have guests here sometimes," he answered. "Family friends are always welcome. Will you sit next to me?"

Now she met his eyes and her smile widened. "Of course."

Given the circumstances, Antonio knew he shouldn't be happy, but he was. Being with Eleanor felt right. They did not speak as they sat beside each other eating their breakfasts, but the silence felt comfortable.

Moretz swept into the room. "Sorry to take so long. Frelling had a lot to report." He went straight to the buffet but continued talking. "The watch list arrests are still ongoing. They are trying not to arrest people at their places of employment since they all can't be guilty. Sheriff Carbelo does not want to wreck the livelihoods of the innocent. There are sixty-eight people on the list and they've arrested thirty-nine of them. They should have the rest picked up in the next few hours." He scooped porridge into a bowl, snagged some strips of bacon and came to the table. "All of the house arrests are complete. Lord Carithi is planning to do those interviews himself as it's only six families. He just left. Carbelo has started interviewing the people her deputies have picked up so far. Frelling's second, Subaltern Makora, and two of his sergeants will be showing my sketches to the department heads shortly. We should know within the hour if that bureaucrat who attacked Edouard is an employee or not."

"Excellent," Celli said. "After breakfast, I'm going to check on Edouard and then I'll go to my office. You can bring reports to me there. Antony, I would like you to go to Edouard's office and find out from Graelin what Edouard's schedule was for today. Anything that you can accomplish in his place, please do so. We want to keep the business of the kingdom running smoothly. Anything we do to make it appear that Edouard's illness is routine will help keep the rumors from getting out of hand."

"Yes, Mother."

"Eleanor, I think it will be all right for you to return to your suite after this," Celli continued. "But do keep in mind what we discussed."

"I will, your majesty."

Celli drew a deep breath and looked around the table. "Edouard is counting on us," she said. "Let's make him proud."

"Yes, your majesty!"

The response echoed from every throat, including Eleanor's. Antonio could not help patting her hand and smiling. It still felt right that she was there. After breakfast, he walked her to the door. "I don't know when we will be able to spend time together again," he said. "I think I'm going to be very busy for the next several days."

"Probably." Eleanor tipped her head to the side and smiled. "But I know you're equal to the task ahead. When his majesty is better, maybe we can have another picnic."

"I would like that."

"I'll look forward to it, then. Good day, your highness." Eleanor curtsied briefly before setting off down the hall.

Antonio watched her go with a wistful smile and then jumped in surprise when Celli spoke from right beside him.

"Is there something you want to tell me?"

Antonio swallowed and turned to face his mother. "Um, you mean about Eleanor?"

"Yes." Celli smiled warmly. "I think I should be suspicious now about Lida suggesting I invite Lady Alcasin to dinner." Antonio blushed and Celli laughed lightly. "I see that I'm right." She put her arms around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. "I won't press you for details now, but when Edouard has recovered, perhaps the three of us should talk."

Antonio could feel the heat in his cheeks. "I do really like her," he said. He met his mother's eyes and then ducked his head. He didn't know why it was embarrassing to say it to her face.

"I gathered that," Celli responded. She kissed his cheek again. "But, as I said, we will have to put this off for the moment. Go see Graelin now. Let me know if you need any help."

"All right." Antonio jogged out, relieved to be out from under his mother's knowing gaze, but also relieved that his secret was out. He wanted Eleanor to be a part of his life. Now he just needed to convince his parents that they did, too.

-o-o-o-o-o-o-

Mederlane had always been an early riser and being imprisoned had not changed that. His cell block had been at the beginning of the route taken by the kitchen staff when they brought the prisoners their meals, so he had usually been awakened before dawn to receive his bowl of porridge and piece of flatbread. Since his release, he had continued to rise early, even though it often meant waiting for an hour or so until his landlady, Missus Tanil, called her boarders down for breakfast. But now that he was working, he often did not have breakfast at the boarding house. The painful truth was that the only difference between her breakfasts and what he had received in prison was the presence of some bacon or sausage and that she sometimes served cornbread instead of flatbread.

So, having a tasty breakfast of poached eggs, a grilled ham slice, onion pie and buttered toast with jam was a pleasant change. The inn where he usually had breakfast was one of his clients, so they allowed him to run a tab, which was also nice. But he never lingered over the meal. His business depended on him calling on clients because he got paid when he worked.

"Would you like more tea, Mister Marlen?" The serving girl paused beside his table with a tray of dishes balanced on her shoulder, the teapot clutched in one hand.

"No, thank you, my dear. I should get to work."

"All right. I'll put today's meal on your tab."

"Thank you."

The girl hurried off and Mederlane swallowed the last of his tea. But before he could rise, a sheriff's deputy stepped in front of his table.

"Mister Mederlane, would you come with me, please?"

Mederlane flinched at the use of his real name. He pushed to his feet, glancing around as he did so. Another deputy stood just behind him "What is this about?"

"The Sheriff has a few questions for you. It shouldn't take too long."

"I see." Mederlane seriously doubted the matter would not take long, otherwise why send two deputies? But he offered no resistance as the two men escorted him out of the inn. It was humiliating to walk down the street with one deputy leading and the other bringing up the rear. Mederlane kept his eyes focused on the back of the deputy in front of him to avoid making eye contact with anyone. He was not surprised when the deputies took him to the massive Sheriff's Station on King Road. The Sheriff's Station was large because, in addition to housing the offices and records of the Sheriff, it also contained the city jail. The jail was not intended for long-term residence. People incarcerated there were generally held for no more than a couple of weeks and often for just a few hours. Therefore, the cells were windowless and quite small, only a little deeper and barely twice the width of the single cot each contained. The front of each cell was barred, which was the only source of light and air, but the entrances to the cells were staggered so prisoners could not easily see each other. Mederlane was conducted to one of these cells and closed in without any further explanation.

Sitting on the edge of the cot, Mederlane considered his situation. He had not heard from Nellen Taffler, so he did not know if the young man had made an attempt on the king's life. But listening to the conversations going on between other prisoners and the deputies, he wondered if something had indeed happened, because it appeared that lots of people were being picked up and no one knew why. Even the deputies did not seem to know. But if Nellen had tried something and been caught, that might explain why the Sheriff was arresting random people. Mederlane had not told Nellen his name, real or assumed. The most Nellen could manage if he tried to implicate him was a vague description that could apply to anyone. After chewing it over, Mederlane concluded that he would just have to wait until his interview with the Sheriff and hope to learn more. Because if Nellen had failed, Mederlane still had two more vials of the poison. He could always try again.

-o-o-o-o-o-o-

Nellen was not surprised when he heard nothing at dinner on the night of his encounter with the king. The poison was supposed to be slow-acting. He was not even sure if his attempt had worked. He had glued a toothpick between two pieces of paper with just the tip exposed and dipped it in the poison. He had then put those pages at the center of a small stack of sheets and coated the edges close to where the tip of the toothpick protruded with more poison. Timing his apparently accidental meeting with the king had been the easiest part. Edouard was reliable when it came to attending the dinner meeting with his senior council. Nellen had simply passed by about the time Edouard usually emerged and saw Graelin leave the door to Edouard's office open. That was the sign that Edouard was done with office work for the day. So, Nellen had walked down the hall and around the corner, then turned and started back, listening for the heavy tread of Edouard's guards. The collision itself had been perfect and he was certain that he had managed to drag the edges of his papers against Edouard's hand, because he had noticed Edouard rubbing his hand as he walked away.

But Nellen had not hung around to make sure. He had gone back to his room, in the suite he still shared with his parents, and burned the papers in his fireplace. Fortunately, his parents had already left for dinner, so there was no one to question why he was starting a fire on a warm summer evening. Then he had opened his window to let out the smell of smoke and gone to join his parents in the dining room with an apology for being late.

But at breakfast the next morning, he suspected he had succeeded. Rumors abounded that the king had fallen ill the night before, but no one knew that for a fact. The rumors were based on the fact that the royal wing was once again under heavy guard and the members of the senior council were studiously avoiding talking to anyone. Exhilarated and worried, Nellen hurried back to his room after breakfast to dispose of the rest of the poison by dumping it into his chamber pot and smashing the vial among the ashes in his fireplace before going to work. Without the poison, there was nothing to connect him to the king's sudden illness, even if the guards remembered him. But he doubted they would.

He arrived in his office, a small room he shared with three other bureaucrats in the Farming Bureau, and settled at his desk without speaking to anyone, which was normal for him. After learning about his heritage as a youth and failing to come to terms with the loss, he had never been able to make close friends. Making friends with his peers would have meant accepting that he was one of them and he had refused to do that. So now, as an adult, he only talked about work with his colleagues, if he talked to them at all.

This meant, of course, that he paid no attention to the sound of voices in the hallway outside the office, even when the conversation stopped outside the office door. He only looked up when his three coworkers abruptly rose from their desks and walked out, and his stomach clenched with sudden fear.

Three royal guards filed into the room to regard him with flat, expressionless faces. A fourth man, his uniform decorated with the gold braid of an officer, stepped in after them with a sheet of paper in his hand. He held the paper up and studied what was on it before studying Nellen carefully.

Nellen slowly stood up. "May I help you?" As the officer lowered the paper and carefully rolled it up, Nellen caught a glimpse of a portrait drawn on it. It was his portrait.

"Nellen Taffler, you are under arrest. Please come with me."

Nellen hesitated. "Arrest? For what?"

Instead of answering, the officer simply gestured toward the door.

Feeling numb, Nellen stepped around his desk and started for the door. Two of the guards exited ahead of him and the other guard and the officer followed him out. In the hallway, Nellen's coworkers watched in alarm as he was taken away, whispering anxiously to each other. Nellen was too stunned to speak. They had a picture of his face! How? His mind reeled as he was escorted through the halls. People stared and whispered as he passed, but Nellen didn't see them. Everything was a blur. He had never before been in the detention block. Entering it felt like walking to the gallows. The guards led him to a cell in complete silence. Only when he was inside, did the officer speak to him again.

Facing him sternly, the man said, "You will be deposed by the Royal Prosecutor as a person of interest in an assault on his majesty. By her majesty's order, a soothsaying will be performed."

All the strength flowed out of Nellen's limbs and he sank to his knees. He was an ordinary bureaucrat. No one should have remembered him. His anonymity should have protected him. He must have been betrayed. He wrapped his arms tightly around himself. "A soothsaying won't be necessary," he rasped out. "I'll tell you everything."

"I will convey that to Lord Carithi." And with that the guards marched out and the cell door boomed shut behind them.

Nellen dropped his face into his hands. He was ruined, just like his father. The name of Casterlane would never be redeemed.

-o-o-o-o-o-

Eleanor took back hallways to return to her family's suite. Although there were a few people clustered down the hall watching the entrance to the family wing, no one seemed to notice her as she was allowed to slip out between two of the four glowering guards who stood across the entrance, blocking it. She turned quickly into a side hall that was more commonly used by servants and scurried to the nearest flight of stairs. She saw few people along the way but that did not really surprise her. It was still early and most people were probably still having breakfast. She was also not surprised to find her entire family, including her father, still in the suite when she arrived, talking nervously in the parlor. When she entered, her mother jumped to her feet and rushed to embrace her.

"Eleanor! You're back!" Amanda exclaimed in relief. "We were starting to worry."

"I'm sorry I worried you, Mother," Eleanor replied, "but her majesty asked me to stay for the night. She feared if anyone saw me, I might be hounded with questions."

"Oh!" Amanda leaned back, still clasping Eleanor's shoulders, and blinked worriedly. "Does that mean we should not ask you why Lord Moretz asked you to go with him?"

"No, it's all right." Eleanor drew a breath. "Lord Kieran wanted to see me to remind him of something we once talked about. I'm afraid I can't go into more detail. Her majesty asked me to keep their confidence."

Amanda dropped her hands to her sides and nodded sharply. "Very well then, we shall ask no more. But did you have a chaperone last night?"

Eleanor couldn't help smiling. Given that her mother knew about her feelings for Antonio, it was no surprise that she would ask. "I spent the night in Princess Lida's room. She said she wanted you to have no concern for my virtue."

A delighted smile blossomed on Amanda's face and she pulled Eleanor into another warm embrace. "I shall write a letter of thanks to her highness this afternoon," she said. "It was very thoughtful of her to anticipate and alleviate my concern."

"You slept in Princess Lida's bedroom?!" Mariah exclaimed, her voice sharp with envy.

"I did," Eleanor acknowledged. "She made space for me in her own bed. She said it was like having a sister." Mariah goggled, jealousy burning on her face. Eleanor pretended she didn't notice. "Have you not yet gone to breakfast? I've already eaten. The royal family rose early today."

"You ate in the royal dining room?!" Mariah choked out.

"Yes. They usually have a buffet for breakfast, so they invited me to join them since it was so early." She turned to her mother. "But I would like to go to breakfast with you anyway and have another cup of tea."

"All right," Amanda replied. "We were waiting in the hope that you would return, but I am famished! It was difficult to eat last night after you left, not knowing what was going on. And then learning from your father that his majesty had fallen ill, it was all very upsetting." Amanda looped her arm through Eleanor's and started for the door. "Hopefully, the news will be better today."

Once they were in the hallway, Tomas stepped up on her other side. "Do you have any news of his majesty?" he asked in a low voice.

"He is improving," Eleanor responded softly. "But I do not think I should say more."

"That's fine." Tomas patted her shoulder. "It is likely a meeting of the senior council will be called later to fill us in." He shook his head. "It was just so alarming. I hope they are able to explain what happened."

"They should," Eleanor said. She exchanged a quick glance with him. She could see the worry on his face. She wished that she could tell him more, to alleviate some of his concern, but she was determined to abide by her promise to Queen Celli. Her father was on the senior council. It was likely they would be told everything eventually. They had been there when the king collapsed and Kieran passed out, after all. But it was not her place to speak of it, not even to her father. So, she remained silent as they continued on to the dining room.

The dining room was crowded and from the hushed, anxious-sounding conversations, it was obvious that news of the king had spread. Eleanor could feel eyes on her as her family was taken to a table.

"People are watching us," Evelyn whispered. "Do you suppose rumors about Eleanor have spread?"

"We will not entertain such speculation," Amanda answered sternly. "It could simply be because your father is a member of the senior council. There are undoubtedly those who wonder if he is privy to any private information."

"Oh, of course," Evelyn replied. "I hadn't thought of that." But the expression on her face made Eleanor wonder if she really believed that.

Once they were seated, with so many people staring at them, Eleanor kept her gaze on the cup in front of her, watching one of the servants fill it. She sipped the tea slowly, realizing as she did so that it was a different blend from the tea that she had enjoyed in the royal dining room. She decided to say nothing about it, anticipating Mariah's jealous response.

They had only just received their breakfasts when a servant in palace livery approached their table. It was a young woman, but she was wearing a tunic and trousers like the male servants. She bowed to Tomas. "Lord Alcasin, her majesty has called a meeting of the senior council in one hour."

"Thank you," Tomas replied.

The servant bowed again and marched off to a nearby table that was occupied by another council member.

"Oh, I hope you'll learn more about what happened and will be able to tell us," Amanda said anxiously.

"I hope so, too," Tomas answered. He began eating more quickly. "I have some tasks I should finish first in preparation for my afternoon meeting. There's no telling how long the meeting with her majesty will be. You should go to luncheon without me and I'll join you if I can."

"All right." Amanda chewed her lip for a moment. "As today is an off day for Mariah, I had planned to take Madam Hess' suggestion that we spend the morning in the garden. She told me that a group of ladies meets regularly in one of the pavilions to work on their embroidery and chat." Amanda glanced around the table. "But perhaps all four of us should go." She chuckled abruptly. "I do not include you, Toby, as I assume you still have no interest in taking up the skill."

Tobias shook his head and grinned. "None at all."

"But Evelyn and Eleanor, I think you should join us."

Evelyn did not look happy, but she nodded once.

"Do you know which pavilion?" Eleanor asked.

"Hess said they meet in the Rose Pavilion."

"I know where that is."

Amanda smiled. "I assumed you would. We'll go back to the suite after breakfast and get our sewing kits."

The day was starting to warm up when they strolled out into the garden with their sewing kits in hand. The kits were boxes with hinged lids, lift-out shelves, and various compartments for storing needles, embroidery floss and pins, with space enough for a small embroidery hoop and some material. They were intended specifically for taking one's current work somewhere. The lid had a handle so the box could be easily carried. Eleanor swung her kit in one hand as she led the way to the Rose Pavilion. She quite liked that particular pavilion. Climbing roses wound up the posts supporting the roof, giving the pavilion its name and filling the air with a pleasant fragrance. The pavilion was quite large and the slate roof kept the seating area cool. A half-wall with benches encircled the paved floor, with four large openings to allow entry. Cushions on the benches invited people to sit and enjoy the space. It was common for musicians to set up in the center of the pavilion and play. But the center of the pavilion was empty when they arrived. A dozen or so ladies were seated on the benches, their open sewing kits at their feet.

"Good morning, Lady Alcasin!" one of the ladies greeted them as they neared. "How wonderful to see you. And you've brought your lovely daughters."

"Good morning, Lady Bellamy. Good morning, everyone," Amanda replied, inclining her head courteously to the group. "It seemed like a pleasant morning to relax outdoors and get caught up on my sewing."

"Indeed it is," another lady said.

The women were spaced out, utilizing all the benches, but there were sufficient gaps where the newcomers could take seats. There was a spot large enough for Amanda and Mariah to sit together, but Eleanor and Evelyn ended up on different benches. As Eleanor opened her box to get her hoop, the lady beside her leaned over to take a look.

"What's that you're making, Miss Alcasin?"

"I'm hoping to make decorations for a dress, Lady Bale, but I'm not sure I'll be able to make them all look the same."

Lady Bale chuckled. "Don't worry about it if it's for the hem. Men never look at your feet." Eleanor blushed as the ladies who heard the remarked tittered.

"Forgive me for asking, Lady Alcasin," Lady Bellamy said, "but have you learned anything from your husband about his majesty? None of us have relatives on the senior council."

Amanda shook her head. "I'm afraid not, but her majesty has called a meeting of the council this morning, so perhaps the court will receive news soon."

"I certainly hope so. His majesty is such a fine gentleman and an excellent king. One doesn't like to think of him falling ill." Lady Bellamy blinked worriedly for a moment, but then her expression brightened. "But you recently had the privilege of dining with their majesties, did you not?"

"We did." Amanda smiled as she responded. "What a wonderful experience! Their majesties are gracious hosts and the entire family is utterly charming."

"I daresay your daughters were charmed by his highness," Lady Bellamy chuckled. She smiled at the younger women. "Did you enjoy meeting Prince Antonio?"

"We did," Evelyn answered, "but Eleanor was already acquainted with him at the time."

Lady Bellamy's eyes widened in surprise as she regarded Eleanor but before she could speak, another woman interrupted.

"You are acquainted with his highness?" the woman said, her brows pulled down into a slight frown.

"Yes, milady," Eleanor replied.

"You have only been at court a short time," the woman continued. "How did you manage to become acquainted with his highness so quickly? My daughter Sabina has lived at court most of her life and has had only one or two conversations with his highness."

Eleanor heard the undertone of irritation in the woman's voice. She tried to keep her voice light as she responded. "His highness and I share a mutual passion for history and architecture," she said. "I ran into him in the library one afternoon and we have met a few times since to talk about our studies."

"Indeed?" the woman lifted an eyebrow as she returned her attention to her sewing.

Eleanor focused on her own sewing, hoping the subject would get dropped. It seemed her mother was right about other ladies reacting poorly to the apparent competition. Fortunately, no one else said anything more about it, but she could still feel herself being scrutinized. It was an uncomfortable feeling, so she almost sighed with relief when, after an hour, her mother began packing up her things.

"Ladies, this has been a very pleasant morning, but I have a few letters I need to write," Amanda said. Eleanor immediately folded up her embroidery and returned it to the box at her feet. Evelyn and Mariah quickly packed up as well before anyone could suggest that the girls remain. The three of them murmured goodbyes as they stood up and followed their mother out of the pavilion. Amanda said nothing until they were well across the lawn but then glanced at Evelyn with a frown. "I wish you had not said anything about Eleanor and Prince Antonio. I would have preferred that she not be seen as a competitor for his hand."

Evelyn blinked in surprise. "I only mentioned that they were acquainted," she said.

"And you saw how even that casual remark was interpreted," Amanda replied. "But still, maybe it will be helpful. Other families without daughters of an appropriate age may decide forging a tie with our family will be a good political move if they think Eleanor is on the short list to become a member of the royal family."

Evelyn stumbled to a halt. "But if Eleanor becomes engaged before I do, I will become an old maid!" she exclaimed in stark dismay.

Amanda stopped and faced Evelyn with a loud sigh. "The prince is not yet seventeen years old. Even if he becomes fixed on Eleanor, no announcement is likely to be made for years. We have time to find a good husband for you." She resumed walking, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. Mariah put a sympathetic hand on Evelyn's arm but said nothing. The two followed behind their mother and Eleanor brought up the rear. When they entered their parlor, Amanda loosened the top button of her dress' collar. "I'm going to lie down for a little while. Mariah, I would like you to spend at least two hours reading. Please call me in time for luncheon if I doze off."

"Yes, Mother."

No one spoke until they heard the door to their mother's room close. In the silence, Evelyn deposited her sewing kit on the coffee table and folded her arms under her breasts, staring at the glass doors to the balcony. "So now I must hope that his highness is enamored enough with you that I can attract some suitor looking for political gain." She did not look at Eleanor as she spoke.

"But what about Arrick Tems? He has been very attentive, hasn't he?" Mariah asked.

"He was only pretending to court me to make another girl jealous," Evelyn said, her voice thick with humiliation. "It turns out everyone knew. He has been pursuing her for years. They've all been laughing at me behind my back."

Mariah's eyes opened wide. "That's… That's ungentlemanly!" she finally managed to exclaim. "How could he do such a thing?"

"And how could I fall for it?" Evelyn retorted bitterly. "It's because we are new to court and don't know about all the relationships and cliques. I can't go around any of those people anymore. I might as well go back home."

Eleanor stepped in front of Evelyn and hugged her sister tightly. "You mustn't give them such a victory," she said. "You're from one of the finest families in the kingdom and your father sits on the king's senior council. You have value in your own right."

"Do you really think that?"

"Yes, I do." Eleanor stepped back and took Evelyn's hand. Then she held the other out to Mariah. "I think we should spend the rest of the morning together. Let's go to my room and do something silly."

Evelyn smiled faintly. "We could style Mariah's hair so she looks more grown up. It will irritate Mother."

Mariah grinned broadly. "That sounds like fun!" She started for the door but then hesitated. "But Mother told me to spend two hours reading."

Eleanor caught Mariah's hand. "I'll give you my book to hold and Evelyn and I will both swear we saw you reading it."

Mariah giggled. "All right!" The three of them trooped down the hall to Eleanor's room. Neither of her sisters had been in her room since their initial visits, but now neither of them seemed inclined to complain about her larger accommodations. Instead, Mariah dashed across to the balcony doors and threw them open. "Let's let in the fresh air!" she cried. She stepped out onto the balcony. Eleanor and Evelyn joined her.

"We really do have a nice suite," Evelyn said. "I love this view."

"This is one of the best suites in the palace," Eleanor said. "It shows we are valued by her majesty."

"You should rub Arrick Tems' nose in it," Mariah said wickedly.

Evelyn abruptly smiled. "You know what? I think I will. I'll make him regret making a fool of me." She leaned on the rail and took a deep breath. "I am not going to let this ruin my future. And I am not going to be jealous of your good fortune either, Eleanor. His highness is a much better man than Arrick. If he is interested in you, I'm sure his feelings are genuine."

"Thank you, Evelyn." Eleanor leaned on the rail beside her. "And to be completely honest, I am extremely fond of him, so I hope his feelings are genuine."

"I still wish it were me," Mariah said, "but I will try harder not to be so petulant about it." She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't feel like Mother is purposely holding me back. When do I get to start meeting interesting young men? It's not like I want to get betrothed right away. I just think it would be fun to be courted."

"We should take turns telling Mother we want to have Mariah with us," Evelyn said. "I'm sure Mother will be happy to let her go with you, Eleanor, because she'll assume you'll spend the whole time in the library. And if I say I will chaperone Mariah for the afternoon, I'm sure she'll agree to that as well."

Eleanor smiled. "I agree. And we won't spend the whole time in the library. I'll invite Prince Vincent and his friend to go on an outing with us. They are a lot of fun and since they are wizards, you will be completely safe in their company."

"Wizards?!" Mariah squeaked, pressing her hands to her cheeks. "I don't know if I would feel comfortable."

"All the more reason to spend time with them." Eleanor started back inside. "Take a seat at my dressing table, Mariah. I'll get my book." Eleanor smiled to herself. She knew she had been drifting apart from her sisters, but until that moment she hadn't grasped how much it bothered her. It was fun to have them there, with the three of them giggling like they had when they were children. This was the way it should be.