As my sister and the prince predicted, the metal pea did its job. After such a sleepless night, the miller’s daughter looked dreadful. My sister said the girl had spent half the night tossing and turning and muttering about hoping this was worth marrying the man she loved. The Queen was delighted. Surely the girl was exhausted from a long night of tossing and turning on a pea. It was decreed: the “princess” and the prince would be married forthwith.
Camille was surprised to see Muriel and Madeline awake early enough to see Lawrence off, but she hid it well. She fought the urge to roll her eyes as the women fawned over her harried father, who barely spared them a glance before he was out the door, rushing for the castle and his part in the war with the Pearl Kingdom.
“Well,” Muriel said, turning on Camille as soon as the door closed behind her husband.
Camille arched a brow and crossed her arms. “Well?” she repeated back.
“Don’t be stupid, child,” Muriel snapped, taking a step closer to Camille, Madeline standing behind her with a slight smile on her face. “Your father may be in residence now, but he’s hardly here. Nor will he be now that war rages.” She grinned. “It’s you and us, Camille. Stay out of our way, or we’ll do what we need to do.”
“That sounds like a vague plan,” Camille said dryly.
She should have seen the slap coming, but, in her defense, Madeline’s unexpected snicker drew her attention away from the woman in her face. Still, she resisted placing a hand to her smarting cheek. Instead, she fixed her stepmother with a flinty look, studying her, and turned away, heading for the parlor. Behind her, she heard Muriel and Madeline scurry up the stairs.
As their footsteps receded, she turned where she had paused in the doorway to watch as the hems of their skirts vanished up the stairs. A thoughtful frown pulled at her lips. There had been something unnatural about Muriel’s face, something that belied her age. She couldn’t quite place it, but she’d certainly be keeping an eye on those two.
She fingered the glass hanging around her neck before raising it to whisper her sister’s name.
“I’m here,” Abigail said, sounding just slightly out of breath.
“Not being swarmed by the ladies of the court, I hope,” Camille said with amusement in her voice.
Abigail laughed. “No, thank goodness. I was moved to the royal quarters. Only courtiers with an invitation may enter. But, ah, I’m currently in the kitchens anyways.”
Camille laughed softly. No courtier would ever be caught dead in the kitchens. Just as it had been at Olidan Manor, so was it now the perfect hiding place.
“Curling up in a warm corner with a book?” Camille teased as she walked into the parlor.
“No,” Abigail said seriously. “Making bread. A lot of men and women are being sent out into war and they need supplies, food and water and the like. But a lot of people in the city have also been displaced. The castle is sheltering as many as possible, and, well, it’s a lot of mouths to feed.”
“I’m not sure if baking bread was what Adrian meant by keeping safe,” Camille pointed out. “After all, you will be Queen one day.”
“And what Queen doesn’t do her job and take care of her people?” Abigail shot back. “Hasn’t our Queen shown us that, both by being a kind and giving Queen and in being a warm and loving aunt? Hers will be difficult shoes to fill.”
“Don’t lose your mind over it, Gail.”
“I’m not. I’m doing my duty.” Under her breath, Camille could hear her mutter, “Unlike every other member of court.”
“Kyanan?” Camille ventured.
“Exhausted, but serving Adrian as best she can. Mostly, she’s keeping him fed right now as he’s in an endless string of meetings.”
“Good,” Camille said firmly. “I’m keeping an eye on Muriel and Madeline. Even though we’re at war, I have no doubt they’ll do their best to throw Madeline at Adrian. You’re not engaged yet; there’s still a chance to disrupt your relationship.”
“Yes, I know,” Abigail said calmly, “but I know Adrian’s heart and Kyanan and his personal guards won’t let him come to harm.”
“There’s something odd about Muriel, too,” Camille said as she turned to stare out of the parlor’s windows.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure. But I’ll keep trying to figure it out.”
“Don’t worry about me, Camille. You have enough on your plate. I need to get back to the bread.”
“Of course,” Camille murmured as she caught sight of a figure in a dark cloak darting from the side of the manor to the street.
After a quick goodbye to her sister, Camille dropped the glass and hurried to the front doors, swinging her cloak around her shoulders as she went.
The figure was moving fast, but she recognized the cloak. When the snow had started falling, Muriel had taken it upon herself to call in Clarice to create cloaks for herself and Madeline. They were thick and luxurious with the Olidan crest created from pearls. Camille had found it distasteful, but her father had been much too preoccupied since his homecoming to notice the luxury his new wife and daughter had lavished on themselves.
Now she was glad for their audacity. She only wished she knew if it was Muriel or Madeline she was following.
The figure moved away from the city and the icy roads, making Camille frown as she followed. Ice crunched beneath her feet as she followed one of the women past the city gates and off the road into the woods.
She dodged around trees and low hanging branches, following at a distance to keep the noise of crunching snow and ice as quiet as possible. Not that the figure seemed to notice. She seemed to be marching her way deeper into the snowy woods. A woman on a mission. It was the mission that worried Camille.
Deeper into the woods she followed, her puzzlement growing with every step. They were quite far from the city and any other civilization. She didn’t know these woods well, but it seemed the woman she was following did. At least, she managed to avoid any pitfalls so far.
Finally, as the sun was nearing its peak, the figure slowed, pushing back branches that grew so thickly together Camille didn’t think anyone had come this way in generations. She likewise slowed her steps, stepping now with great care to not be heard over the woman’s mutters as branches caught and clawed at her expensive cloak.
The woman broke through what seemed to be a wall of branches, stumbling out into a clearing. Camille hung back, peeking through the branches and moving to the side, keeping the woman in her sights, but staying off to the side just in case the woman went back the way she had come. She did not want to be caught face to face with either Muriel or Madeline.
She watched as the woman approached a tower soaring into the sky. Made of dark gray stone, there was no door that she could see. When she crouched low and peered up through the branches, she could see a window at the top, and nothing else.
Camille frowned, watching as the woman walked around the tower, nodding to herself. She had no idea what this tower was, hadn’t even known it existed. She couldn’t remember anyone ever mentioning such a thing outside of the city, but perhaps Clarice or Kyanan or one of the other fae might know.
“What purpose?” she caught herself whispering aloud.
The woman had stopped and was now staring up at the tower, but her hood still covered her face. Then she stepped back and nodded once to herself before resolutely turning and heading back the way she had come.
Camille drew back as quietly as she could, hoping the woman wouldn’t notice another set of footprints in the snow. Fortunately, she seemed oblivious as she marched back the way she had come without seeming to look down. After waiting a few seconds, Camille slowly pulled herself up and followed the woman back to the road.
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