“Stubborn woman. Sleep.”
I did for a while, cursing him even as I turned my face into his shoulder. But when the moaning of the wounded waned and the light crept over the Jeruvian hills to the east, I opened bleary eyes on the domed fortress that would be my home for the unforeseeable future. Black ramparts and parapets and a wall that extended as far as the eye could see gleamed in the early light, the dark stone threaded with Jeruvian ore and the precious nacre that lined the ancient sea bed to the west. The women of Corvyn wore the stone in their ears and around their necks—the black iridescence made beautiful jewelry. Clearly, it was so plentiful in Jeru City they built walls with it.
“Welcome to Jeru, Lady Corvyn,” the king murmured, and pride rose from his pores like perfume. I pulled away from him and did my best not to breathe him in. The beauty of his city, of the king himself, was confusing to me. I doubt he noticed the stiff line of my back and the obstinate tilt of my chin; if he did he didn’t care. His relief at being home rivaled that of the horses, and it reverberated around him as if we were trapped in a bell tower.
As we approached the wall, a trumpet sounded and a massive door lowered in a well-oiled greeting. It was just after dawn but the city was awake and shouts of welcome rose up from the guard beyond the wall.
“Hail the king!”
“King Tiras has returned!”
“We have injured and dead,” the king called, his voice deep with fatigue. “See to them first. And alert their families.”
The guard who were able slid from their tired mounts and assisted those who weren’t. Kjell and King Tiras continued on through the wide street and climbed a tree and guard-lined hill to the domed fortress I’d glimpsed beyond the gates. When we neared the entrance, King Tiras swung off his horse and without fanfare, lifted me down behind him. My legs were like water, and they pooled beneath me. He swept me up again, much to my chagrin, and carried me across the courtyard, through palace doors that were opened for him with deep bows and stiff salutes, across a wide foyer and down a long hall which turned into the most enormous kitchen I’d ever seen. King Tiras plopped me unceremoniously on a kitchen stool and barked orders at the servants, who scurried from all corners.
“Feed her. Bathe her. Put her to bed.”
A woman in a dress of crisp black stepped forward, bowing deeply. She looked older than the tittering maids who watched the king with awe and admiration, and she seemed to be in charge.
“Yes, Majesty. Welcome home, Sire,” she said smoothly, eying me with equal parts disdain and curiosity. I had no doubt I resembled a skinned rat.
“And lock her in the north tower,” he added as he left, not looking back to see if his orders were heeded.
After eating in the kitchen—a meal I was too tired to enjoy—I was escorted to the north tower, to a room so sumptuous it would have been a pleasure to be a prisoner if I’d cared about rose petals in my bathwater and sleeping on silk sheets. I didn’t. I was grateful I would not be cold or uncomfortable, hungry or naked, but beyond that, I longed for Boojohni and news of his welfare. I needed the woods near my home and my room at my father’s keep. I didn’t know if I’d ever return.
I was bathed and dried in front of a roaring fire, though the day beyond the open windows wasn’t especially cold. Lavender oil was brushed into my hair and massaged into my skin as if I were royalty instead of a captive from Corvyn. Three women attended me, and when their simple questions were met with my silence, they gave up trying to converse at all, sharing glances amongst themselves.
“Can you hear, Milady?” one asked, her voice sharp. They thought I was being quietly contemptuous.
“Do you understand us?”
I nodded again.
“Can you speak?” she snapped.
I shook my head, no.
She had the grace to look slightly chagrined, and the two other ladies-in-waiting tsked in shock.
“You don’t speak Jeruvian or you don’t speak at all?” the youngest of the three asked curiously.
I shook my head again. That was two questions with two different answers. But they seemed to understand when I touched my throat.
They murmured words of regret, and I knew they were bursting to discuss my ailment, if not with me, then with each other. The palace court would talk about me for a while, then they would forget about me all together. I had that effect on people. Silence was a close cousin to invisibility.
When they finally left me alone and locked the heavy door behind them as they’d been instructed, I crawled into the huge bed draped in white gauze and slipped between the downy covers, worrying again about Boojohni. I doubted he’d been given a second glance, not to mention a warm meal and a place to rest. But my final musings before succumbing to sleep were not of my faithful troll, but of the young king who reigned over Jeru. He was not what I had expected.
For three days I saw no one but the staff. I was fed. I was bathed. I was dressed in fine clothing. No one spoke to me, no one even made eye contact, and I stayed locked behind the heavy door. I spent most of my time on the huge balcony overlooking the city. I was kept in a tower so high, the people below were tiny poppets, just flashes of color and energy and life, far beyond my reach. I thought about finding a way to climb down, but there were guards stationed around the perimeter and I didn’t think I could scale the palace walls, though I studied them carefully and looked for possibilities.
On the third night of my odd imprisonment, my covers were thrown off me, and I was dragged from my bed by a desperate Kjell. He didn’t explain himself or tell me where I was going, but his grip was bruising and his expression tight. He hurried me through empty corridors and down winding stairs lit by blazing sconces until he stopped in front of a huge, metal door that made me think of dark dungeons and tortured souls. My toes curled against the cold stone floor, and my teeth began to chatter. I gritted them stubbornly and refused to cower when Kjell unlocked the door with a heavy ring of keys and shoved me inside.