When they arrived at the Queen's room, she was waiting for them, pacing anxiously and surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, all of whom looked as equally startled.
"Oh, Samaire!" the Queen burst out when her daughter entered the room. She ran to her, and Samaire suddenly found herself swept up in her mother's embrace. "It was as I feared," she whispered. "Harm did befall your father."
"Father will be fine, mother," Samaire said, though as soon as the words left her lips she knew they were lies. She had no way of knowing if she would ever see her father again. There were too many things riding on chance and good fortune to be certain of anything.
The Queen pulled away. "Must you go? Can we not send another delegation?"
"It is best if I go," Samaire replied, fighting to keep her voice from breaking. "The White King has made a terrible error in judgment, imprisoning father. And with father gone, the rule of Cassalie falls to me. I will go and prove to him that our threats are not idle, and that we intend to see our demands met."
Samaire watched her mother's face. Her cheeks were wet from crying, and her eyes were two glossy pools of despair. She was a far cry from her normal, fair-skinned, rosy-cheeked self. Much as the two women disagreed, it pained Samaire to see her mother so. Guilt weighed on her also, as she recalled how quick she had been to dismiss her mother's worry earlier that day.
Her mother pulled her daughter to her again.
"Bring him home, Samaire," she whispered. "Whatever it takes… bring him home to me."
"I will," Samaire promised.
"Go, then," he mother said, pulling away and wiping the tears from her eyes. "Our kingdom's prayers go with you."
Samaire bowed respectfully to her mother, before turning to leave.
As she left, she felt more uneasy than she had when she'd entered. Now more than ever, she felt a sense of impending doom lurking just ahead of her. The knot that had been gradually tightening in her stomach since she had been unpleasantly aroused from sleep was now growing in size and strength.
She went directly to her chambers, where Fantina was still asleep. Adonia met her at the door.
"I began packing your things, my lady," she said, dipping her head in a short bow. "Princess Fantina is still asleep…"
"Good," Samaire said softly. "We must not wake her. It will be easier that way…"
She slid into her room noiselessly, going over to where a large canvas rucksack sat on the bed. Adonia had packed several of Samaire's plainer gowns, and a few fancier ones, which Samaire knew would be helpful once she arrived in Kremlia; as trivial as it seemed, she knew the fine velvet gowns would help her make a powerful first impression.
Silently, Samaire slipped a few more objects into the rucksack; two leather-bound books, both gifts from her father, and her sapphire brooch bearing the Cassillian crest.
She tied the sack so that it would stay closed and would be easy to transport, then began to remove the dress she was wearing, changing into an even simpler dress for traveling. She was mildly surprised at the calm demeanor that she was able to maintain; the intense fear that she had felt in the meeting had subsided considerably, and a new clarity drove her actions.
She took one last look around the room, her eyes finally resting on her sister, asleep in bed, unaware of what was going on around her. Fantina would not be happy with her leaving like this, Samaire thought. She would awaken to find that both her father and sister would be gone for an unforeseeable amount of days. And with Illan gone, she would be doubly worried. It pulled on Samaire's heart to leave her sister without warning, but time had left her no option. The King could be dying in a Kremlian dungeon—there was no time to waste. Even the minutes spent here, in her own room were testing Samaire's patience.
She had a sudden desire to breathe open air.
"Adonia," she said in a low voice. "I'm going out to the gardens for a short time. Anatoli has informed me that we are leaving at daybreak—if anything should change, come and find me immediately."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Adonia said.
"If Fantina awakens, tell her simply that I could not sleep and am walking there. Do not mention my leaving."
The servant nodded again, and Samaire left without another word.
She moved through the corridors of her family's chambers at her usual quick pace. The few servants that she passed looked down when she approached them, as though afraid to meet her eyes. Had word spread that rapidly, she wondered. The corridors began to seem increasingly small as she walked; her pace quickened until she was nearly running toward the terrace doors.
When she finally stepped out into the cool night air, she inhaled deeply as one gasping for breath after nearly drowning. She paused on the terrace, but only briefly, before descending the stone stairs that lead to the sprawling gardens, and the lake that laid beyond them.
She knew her destination, and began to run again through the gardens, her dress trailing along behind her, lifted by the breeze that her wake created.
The bridge on the lake was another one of Samaire's refuges; it was far enough from the palace to dissuade anyone from making the long walk, therefore providing Samaire with a place where she knew that she would not be disturbed.
Tonight, the bridge and the lake were as peaceful as ever, bathed in silver moonlight and surrounded by long, aged weeping willow trees. It smelled and sounded of night; the water lapped gently against the lakeshore, small, nighttime insects could be heard every moment or so. Samaire leaned against the wide railing of the bridge, burying her face in her hands. Her mind was racing again, and she was desperately trying to stop it. She didn't want to think—she couldn't think—and yet, thoughts kept cascading through her mind, scenarios played themselves out, and—most unsettlingly— flashes of her worst fears kept surfacing.
"How did it come to this?" Samaire said softly to no one. She looked around vaguely, as though expecting an answer to come from somewhere, but the night was deaf to her question.
With a pensive sigh, she resumed staring out across the water, head resting on her hand, where she remained for quite a long time.
Moments slid by into hours, and day soon began to creep its way closer. The sun was not yet rising, but things were beginning to awaken, though Samaire's reverie continued.
"Princess?" A voice broke the silence.
Samaire turned away from the lake, to see Anatoli standing at the end of the bridge. She nodded in greeting, but said nothing. He walked toward her.
"We should leave soon," he said. "I want to be outside of Ania before the city awakens. The fewer souls who witness our leaving, the better." He joined Samaire on the bridge, standing beside her and casting his gaze out upon the water.
"I agree," Samaire responded quietly.
"Your mother worries for you," he commented.
"I know," Samaire replied, still not turning to look at him. "And I hate to cause her pain by my leaving. But I see no other way to resolve this. My father is in prison, Anatoli. What else can I do?"
"Little else, I fear," said Anatoli gravely. "It was either that or leave him at the White King's mercy. Do not fear, Samaire," he cast of her title, speaking not as a bodyguard to a princess, but as a father would to his daughter. "You chose what you believed in your heart to be the right course. And you will see that course through to its end—despite the hardships that lie hence."
Samaire let out a deep sigh. "My mind is set steadfast on this course. But my heart gives me pause. What if I should fail? What if we do not return? There can be no certainty in this; we know so little about the North." She turned to him, eyes full of anxiety. "Fantina is not ready to rule," she said, thinking worriedly of her sister. "I worry for her sake more than my own…"
Anatoli gave a wry smile. "Well, it will take the entire Kremlian army to deter this soldier," he said lightly. "I defend my lady until I breathe my last."
Samaire laughed a little; for the first time that night, she felt her spirits life. Anatoli shared in the moment, then turned serious. "Whatever may come, Samaire, I am honored to serve such a magnificent, headstrong woman as yourself. And on no day in my life will I be prouder than the day that I can call you my queen. I believe that this path you have chosen is the right one." He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "We will see this through," he said. "For Cassalie."
Samaire nodded. "For Cassalie."
They were silent for another moment, watching as the first faint rays of light began to appear on the horizon.
"Come," Anatoli said gently. "It is time. We must go."
As they walked back to the palace, the fear in Samaire's heart, though it did not vanish completely, began to subside. She was comforted by Anatoli's words and confidence, and as she slipped in and out of her chamber with her rucksack, saying a silent goodbye to her sister, she prayed that they would give her strength enough for the journey ahead.
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