Home > The Promised Queen (Forgotten Empires #3)(6)

The Promised Queen (Forgotten Empires #3)(6)
Author: Jeffe Kennedy

Ibolya returned and handed me one of two mugs she carried. “Bone broth, Conrí,” she said. “Food is coming, but this will hold you until then. Your bath is ready, so I suggest drinking it there. I’ll give this to Lady Sondra, then take Vesno to be cared for. When I return, I’ll come help you with shaving and so forth.”

I huffed a laugh. “Is that necessary?”

“You’ll feel better for it, Conrí,” she replied gently. “And Her Highness will be reassured on waking to see you groomed. I promise: no jewels or flowers. Syr Vesno, would you like some breakfast?”

I drank the broth in gulps as I sank into the tub. Hot, salty, and robust, the nourishment filled the aching, exhausted pit inside me. Groaning, truly feeling the last grueling week now, I let my head fall back, the fury of the storm dimmed in this inside room. As with everything in Calanthe, the ceiling had been lavishly decorated. In this case, colorful pebbles swirled in a pattern like birds flying in a vast flock. As my eyes blurred, they almost seemed to move, flipping in mid-flight to alter their course in a flickering cloud.

Ibolya entered with quiet discretion, but not so silently as to startle me. I dunked my head to wet my hair, and she sat behind me to wash it. “It might be easier to cut it all off,” I remarked.

“Oh, but Her Highness loves it so.”

“She does?” An odd thought, to imagine Lia liking much about me at all—much less commenting on it.

“She does,” Ibolya said firmly. “And putting it in order won’t take much. Let me tend you, if only for Her sake.”

Slathering something warm over my head, she worked it through, using her fingertips to massage my scalp. Another groan escaped me, this one of pure pleasure as I relaxed. It took her a while to comb through all the snarls, along with several rinses of warm, scented water. But I didn’t mind the perfumes and fussing. After Yekpehr, it all seemed so … human. Nourishing in another way.

Ibolya cleaned the blood from my beard, dabbing something soothing on the lip wound I’d forgotten about. Then she lathered my skin above and below my beard, face a picture of concentration as she shaved me with smooth precision.

“Why is this what you do?” I asked her. When she raised a brow in polite question, I searched for the words. “You said before that this is what you can do. And you came with us to Yekpehr, a dangerous mission.”

“I stayed on the yacht, not exactly a hardship,” she replied, using a warm cloth to remove the last of the suds.

“Dangerous,” I repeated, “to the point of suicidal, and you knew it. Yet you asked to come along so you could tend Lia. Now you’re missing your own food and rest, doing the same for me. And after this, I bet you will for Sondra.”

“I doubt Lady Sondra will allow it,” Ibolya said with a rueful smile, “though I wish she would.”

“You’re clearly intelligent,” I persisted, “and can do magic, since it seems you have to be able to, in order to be one of Lia’s ladies. So why is this what you say you can do?”

She picked up a comb and silver scissors, setting to trimming my beard. “Taking care of Her Highness—and now you, Conrí—is hardly an easy or lowering task. I am not a queen, nor do I wish to be. I’m not the sort to pick up a sword or solve knotty problems of government.” She paused, turning my head gently so she could survey her work, began trimming again. “But I can tend those of you who are. In my own way, I like to think I have a hand in making Calanthe what it is—if indirectly.”

“I didn’t mean to imply…” Abashed that I’d insulted her, I groped for an explanation.

“You didn’t, Conrí.” She handed me a towel. “But you did give me something to think about. I’ll check on the food while you dry off. There’s a warmed robe for you by the door. I’d leave you to soak, but I’m afraid you’d fall asleep and you need to be in a bed for that or you’ll be bent over like an old grandpa.”

Fed, clean, and feeling like I could sleep for a week, I found the bedchamber much fresher also. Ibolya had somehow worked her magic to clean up the room without disturbing Lia’s sleep. Or Sondra’s, as my lieutenant and old friend had passed out cold in the chair beside Lia’s bed, her head bent at an angle painful to look at.

There’d be no way to wake her without scaring her to death, but so it went. I put a hand on her shoulder, ready for it when she leapt to her feet, dagger in her hand.

“Easy,” I said quietly, and waited for her brain to catch up.

She looked at my grip on her wrist, where I held her knife well away from my throat, and shook her head, relaxing. “Sorry, Conrí.”

“Nah. I was quiet.” We both glanced at Lia, but she slept like the dead. Bad analogy.

“Ibolya has food and a bath for you. She’s waiting.” I cocked my head at the other room.

“I don’t need—”

“Let her help you. She’s a good hand with a razor. Maybe she can do something about that tufty shit on your head.”

Sondra ran a hand over her badly shorn scalp and scowled at me. “Too bad there’s nothing even her magic can do for your ugly face.”

“True.” I grinned at her. “It’s good to see you again, if I didn’t say so.”

“Thank you, for coming after us,” she replied soberly. “I knew you would.”

“Yeah.”

“And we’re going back, to get Rhéiane.”

One day the sound of her name wouldn’t feel like a knife to the gut. “Yeah,” I said again. Thunder boomed, and in the distance rocks tumbled in an answering roar. “Go sleep.”

“Back at you.”

She left and I crawled onto my side of Lia’s big bed, easing myself closer to her as best I could without bouncing her around or disturbing the covers. She lay on her back, barely more than a white blur in the dimness. They’d lightly bandaged her regenerating hand again, and both lay crossed over her belly, too much like how some buried their dead.

I watched until I could be sure her breast rose and fell, if ever so slightly. I really wanted to put an arm around her, but that might wake her. So I rested my hand next to her on the sheet, a brown, scarred paw compared to her bruised and fragile loveliness. A strange wistfulness that felt kind of like grief and kind of like happiness drifted through me on the mists of exhaustion. Hope, maybe, but not attached to anything. Maybe hope could be a general thing.

Just plain hope.

 

 

3


The dreamthink grabbed me by the throat and roared into my mind with brutal force, nightmares blending with the tumult of reality. They were one and the same: full of death and chaos.

The wolf fighting its chains, howling in hoarse rage, shedding fire and ash. The sea churning, bloodred and crimson dark, bones tossed in the waves, white as foam. Cliffs, towers, and villages collapsing into piles of rubble. Entire islands falling into the sea. Rain poured, mudslides following after. Cracks opened in the ground, people and animals alike shrieking as they fell, calling for me to save them. I reached out, but I had no hands—only bleeding stumps at my wrists. A whirlpool roared beneath, swirling and drinking up the blood, crying for more and more and more …

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