Authors: Nicole MacDonald
That smirk when he teased me, those navy eyes twinkling with mischief. The outraged yell he gave in the mornings when Audi pounced on him. That look of desire infused with love that made my breath catch every time. The way he gave his support, absolutely. Sitting, telling stories of earlier times and listening to him laugh. I loved his laugh. Audi flirting with him when he told her off in a tone that belied his words, her tail swishing and the little grumbles she made while scooting close, ducking her head.
Oh my little girl, I miss you.
At least Ada and Nnelg would look out for her. The other girls would too when they got back.
I swallowed hard and the occasional tear tumbled down my cheeks, hitting the shirt with a soft plop. Who would tell me off for being too casual? A rough laugh escaped my lips when I remembered the frequent scoldings, his charming way with the members of Council who looked down at me, and the impromptu hugs when I had bad moments. The absolute lack of judgment no matter what I blurted out in my ignorance of this world and how things were done. Yakov and Alek telling me stories of my mother and father, laughing together so hard that they couldn’t finish the tales.
I can’t believe she took them both, along with the rest of my meager family. My chest ached and head drooped. I imagined seeing them all together, somewhere safe in the afterlife.
I wonder if I’ll find you all there.
I guess I don’t have to fear him being struck down beside me now. A mirthless bark of a laugh slipped out when I realized what this meant. Thanks Jenviet, for leaving me no other option.
Now I have nothing to lose.
I just need to wait for the right opening, I thought, the determination and sudden desire for vengeance making my hands curl into claws when I envisioned that evil woman’s face. Wait for the right moment, making sure the others don’t get caught up in it and rid this world of that creature.
Leaving it until just after twilight, Ignatius rapped his knuckles against the door and at the Princess’ assent, entered. He found her seated at the table, head twisted to look over a shoulder at who entered.
The slight warmth of tone caused an unexpected flush of pleasure and he smiled at her.
‘I thought to see if you were hungry?’
Her loose hair covered her back but he saw she held something close on her lap. Curious, he moved closer and spied the shirt. Knowing it was too large for her he guessed it to be Alek’s. Surprisingly it didn’t cause that hot flash of jealousy like it had at the castle, but then why be jealous of a dead man? Though Ignatius had disliked Alek, he wouldn’t have wished such an end on him. He knew all too well the delight that witch would have taken in torturing to death the Crown Prince and head of the Griffon Guard. In truth he felt sympathy and admiration, knowing Alek wouldn’t have gone down without a fight.
‘I’m not really hungry,’ Catherine confessed and she flicked a glance at him, her eyes bloodshot and puffy.
‘You need to keep your strength up, Highness.’
He stepped closer, a hand to the back of her chair and she twisted back, staring at the shirt in her lap, pale fingers pleating the fabric. Ignatius waited, considering what food might tempt her. He needed her to eat something; the poison Elena gave him would be obvious in a glass of water. The dying light of the sun glinted off the mass of red hair before him, its varying shades catching his eye and his chest throbbed at the reminder of the fresh burns that hair, in her elemental form, had given him. Ignatius hunched his shoulders a little, lifting the fabric of his shirt off the seared skin. His mind drifted to Alek again and that witch. While he couldn’t stand the creature, he felt a certain measure of gratitude toward the events that had occured. The problem of what to do with Alek now wasn’t an issue and even when they got back from this mission, Yakov wouldn’t be a problem either. Two major components of his plan solved before they’d even set forth. A smirk touched his lips and his hand tightened on the back of Catherine’s seat. He started in surprise when she spoke.
‘There was a drink I had at Lothost. It was thick and creamy. Do you know what it might have been?’
The smirk left his lips, replaced by a smile of relief. That would certainly hide the poison.
‘I’d guess it was nellor, Highness. They often give it to invalids or those who can’t eat. It would be good for you, I’ll fetch some now.’
In the kitchen the cook, flushed from the heat of the massive ovens, frowned at Ignatius.
‘She should be eating something!’
‘Can’t you add an egg to it?’
The low smooth tones of Leseach’s voice set Ignatius’ teeth on edge and he refused to turn and acknowledge her, but nodded to the cook.
‘Yes! That’ll make it better.’
The cook grumbled, not fully satisfied but set to making the drink while he and the Northerner watched. Knowing she stood just behind him caused a knot of muscles between his shoulder blades to tighten and he twisted to glare at the blond alien, hating the way she could nearly look him in the eyes with her extreme height.
‘I don’t believe I require your assistance.’
Her queerly striped eyes regarded him flatly.
‘Rashid suggested we discuss the sleeping arrangements with guarding the Princess. I understand you have specific orders from the Archduchess to watch over her?’
Relief at not having to demand the right or create an explanation for sleeping in Catherine’s room allowed Ignatius to ignore the Northerner’s disgruntled tone.
‘Yes! She did ask that of me. I’ll sleep at the foot of her bed. Will you and Rashid take shifts watching the door?’
‘As well as Belsesus. I’m assuming whatever Elena gave you will cause the Princess to sleep for eight to nine hours so we’ll take three hour shifts each.’
The casualness with which the Northerner stated it irritated him and he snapped, ‘What makes you think Elena gave me such a thing?’
‘No matter your opinion of my kind, Ignatius, we are far from stupid. And I know how a sleeping potion works, though I’m curious as to what the Sorceress used. It must be quite strong.’
Leseach said it matter-of-factly and the patronizing look she accompanied it with only served to tighten that knot of muscles more.
‘If you need any help with the dosage let me know.’
She turned and left the kitchen while he snarled, ‘I’ll be fine. The task was entrusted to me.’
He glared after her, inwardly berating himself for allowing the alien to annoy him. At the sound of a soft cough he turned and the cook flinched at his withering look. The elvan half-breed timidly offered a large mug.
‘It’s ready, Sir.’
With the excuse of needing to grab a bedroll from his room, Ignatius carried the drink to his quarters and set it on the desk. After locking the door, he quickly extracted the wrapped parcel from its hiding place in the back of the desk. With cautious hands he slowly removed the wrapping, taking care not to spill any of the powdered leaf. His heartbeat sounded loud in his ears as he stared at the poison—enough to easily kill all those aboard the ship.
How much am I meant to give her? In the haste of that fraught trip to the castle it hadn’t occurred to him to ask the Sorceress. Trying to recall how much she’d forced down Catherine’s throat didn’t help, the memory a blur of anxiety. With trembling hands he carefully tapped a measure amount into the drink and stirred until no glimpse remained.
Belsesus stood outside the Princess’ room and nodded to Ignatius when he entered, a bedroll under one arm, taking care not to spill any of the drink. Catherine still sat at the table but had changed into bed clothes. It wasn’t what he traditionally thought of as bed wear, the small shorts revealing a lot of leg and the oversized shirt showing a glimpse of breast through the loose collar until she straightened at his approach. The reminder of his intent at that glimpse of skin distracted him and he focused his eyes on the mug.
‘Here, your Highness, let me know if it’s to your taste.’
She nodded, accepting the mug and shifted on the seat pulling both knees up revealing even more leg than seemed decent in another’s company. He kept his eyes on her face, waiting to see if she tasted the poison and watched her lift the mug to her lips, tossing her plait over a shoulder when it almost dipped in the mug.
‘Mmmm, this is perfect,’ she smiled tiredly. ‘It tastes just as I remember.’
Relief made him smile and he pretended to look out the window, discreetly watching while she finished the drink. She drained the mug then set it back on the table with a loud thud. Ignatius gave her a sharp look.
‘Oops,’ she slurred, ‘that was a little harder—‘
Her head pitched forward and Ignatius leaped up to catch her with a muffled exclamation. Scooping her into his arms, he stared anxiously down, willing her to breathe. Catherine’s head lolled to the side, her face against his chest, and he flinched when the warm breath hit the fresh burns. Thank the gods, he thought in relief.
A loud thump on the door made him jolt in shock.
‘Ignatius! Is all well?’
Eyes on her sleeping face, Ignatius called out in a quiet voice, ‘All good, I tripped over a stool. She’s just gone to sleep.’
‘Oh, okay. Be careful not to wake her,’ the hushed voice replied. Ignatius rolled his eyes at the closed door and smiled at the woman in his arms.
‘I will,’ he whispered and carried her to the bed, gently laying her down and drew the covers over the limp figure. Seizing his bedroll off the table, he flicked it out along the floor in front of the bed, having his head at the same end as hers and stripped off to pull on his night shorts. Before climbing under the covers, he bent over Catherine and slid a hand around her throat, fingers probing for a pulse. She mumbled in her sleep, shifting restlessly against his fingers when he pressed firmly. The reassuring steady thud of blood allowed the tension to leave his shoulders and he smiled down at the sleeping woman. The poison appeared to work well, her brow relaxed and lips slightly parted while she breathed. She looked so much at ease in sleep and Ignatius gently moved his hand from her neck to cup her cheek, bending to kiss her forehead, her scent triggering a moment of desire.
‘Sleep well, Princess.’
Decades of patrolling prior to being made Lieutenant allowed Ignatius to slip off to sleep with ease, the bedroll comfortable enough. With part of his mind alert to the soft breaths from above and an ear to the person on guard outside, he stiffened at the sound of a soft knock after midnight.
‘All well?’ breathed the Northerner from outside the door.
With a silent yawn Ignatius sat up, tall enough to peer over the edge of the bed. Catherine slept curled in a ball, the covers sprawled around her legs and the shirt scrunched high enough to expose her belly. She held the front of it in a hand, close to her nose.
‘She’s fine,’ Ignatius called out in a quiet voice and drew the covers back over her.
* * *
Rumal paused outside Catherine’s room and stared at Leseach.
‘Is she still asleep?’ he asked in surprise.
The Northerner lifted her chin and leveled a straight look at him.
The unexpected abrupt tone caused Rumal to shoot her a quizzical glance, but Leseach remained impassive. With a shrug he continued on his way down the corridor and climbed the stairs to the main deck, seeking Kassie. He spotted her mass of bronze curls, the cool wind blowing them around her head. She sat with Kerak at the edge of the deck, looking over the railing toward the ship with Sabyn and Loi. Rumal slid onto the bench seat beside her, straddling it and slipped his arms around her waist.
‘Morning,’ he said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. She didn’t say anything but leaned back against him with a sigh. Scattered clouds moved swiftly over the gray sky and the occasional gusts across the ship made the slighter goblins hunch toward the deck, bracing against the wind. The Halenine fae clung tight to the centaurs, hanging from their tails and the backs of the heavy vests the Cavalry soldiers wore.