A/N: For E with hugs.


Chapter Sixteen

The following morning, Darina rose before anyone else and made her way back to the Collegium. She turned Aibrean loose in the Field.

:Vaden is already hard at work in his office, Kyrith tells me.:

"Thanks." She turned to leave, but paused and impulsively threw her arms around Aibrean's neck. "I don't know what I would have done if—"

:Do not finish that thought. 'If' never happened, so don't even think of dwelling on it. The only thing we need to focus on now is finding who is trying to destroy Valdemar.:

Nodding, Darina released her. "Of course." With a smile, she kissed her nose, and headed for the Herald's wing of the Palace. She navigated the corridors until she stood outside of Vaden's office. She knocked softly.

"Enter."

She slipped inside his office and closed the door.

He glanced up and met her eyes. Laying aside his quill, he rose, moved around his desk and drew her into an embrace. "Kyrith told me."

She clung to him. "It's not her."

"I know," he whispered. "I'm very happy for you."

"Now what?" She released him and drew back.

He raised an eyebrow. "We start over." He leaned against his desk. "It's our only choice."

"I suppose it is." Her eye caught the widening glow from Vaden's eastern window. "I have an appointment with the stable master at dawn." She hoped she kept the annoyance she felt from working its way into her tone.

Vaden stepped forward and kissed her—deeply. "Don't let him woo you. He's does that, you know, with all the ladies."

"I won't." All feelings of annoyance fled, and she bit her lower lip softly. "Will I see you later?"

He smiled. "Do you have plans for dinner?"

She shook her head.

"Why don't you come to my suites? We have to go over preparations for the fealty ceremony anyway..."

"Work?" She didn't even try to hide her dismay.

His hands found her waist and pulled her close. "Yes, and it could well take a very long time to go over everything."

She felt a warmth stain her cheeks at his suggestive tone. "Well... if we must. Duty comes first, after all." She lifted her face to his and kissed him.

"I look forward to it." He released her with evident reluctance.

She threw him an impish smile. "If I'm late, it will be your fault."

"We can't have that." He kissed her softly and returned to his chair. "I'll see you tonight."

She nodded and left him.

Mucking out the stables wasn't fun by any stretch of the imagination, but she gritted her teeth, saw it through, and thanked the Lady that Companions weren't horses.

The rest of the morning flew by. After a hasty breakfast, she had her law and jurisprudence classes followed by her weapons and equestrian training. She found time for a sketchy wash and a uniform change before hurrying to the kitchens to help with lunch. After lunch, she bathed and changed into her court garb and hurried to Leesa's solar.

Outside the solar doors, she calmed her breathing before entering. The ladies were seated as usual, chatting and working on their tapestries or embroideries, and Darina felt a sudden wave of despair. Her eyes fell on Leesa, who picked at the cloth with her needle with apparent disinterest. How would they ever find out the truth? Someone was killing the Queen—her Queen—and there didn't seem to be a thing anyone could do about it. Anger flushed through her veins and she gritted her teeth. Never. She would never—

"Darina!"

Karan's hushed tones drew her attention and she turned to find her sister standing beside her.

"You look like you're ready to kill someone. Are you all right?"

Darina blinked and shook her head. "Yes." She offered Karan a slight smile. "I'm fine. I'm just—thinking about Leesa—"

"I know," Karan said, growing sober. "I've been watching everyone all day." She shook her head. "I haven't noticed anything."

Darina's Foresight had flared when she entered the solar, as it usually did, but it didn't settle on anyone or anything. She clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms. What was the point of having a Gift if it wouldn't work?

:It does work,: Aibrean interjected. :Just not well.:

:And it won't for a few years, so Lissa says.: She sighed. :Surely, Vaden can come up with some reason to bring back one of our Foreseers from the border.:

:I don't know. Where does the greater danger lie? From Karse, or from the Palace?:

:What if they're one and the same?: It was a thought that had hovered at the edges of her mind since the prior evening. Karse would benefit most from a breakdown of Valdemar's royalty. What if they were behind the attacks?

:I don't know.: Aibrean's mindvoice sounded bleak and depressed.

"What does she say?"

Darina blinked and focused her attention on Karan.

"Aibrean," said Karan. "What does she say?"

She sighed. "She doesn't know what to think anymore than we do."

"Darina! Karan!"

Darina turned to see Lady Catalla approach with a broad smile.

"Come, join the other ladies." Her voice dropped. "Surely you know it's not polite to whisper together like this." She ushered them into the circle and directed them toward their respective chairs.

Darina took her seat next to Leesa. "Majesty."

"Hello, Darina." Her voice sounded as bleak as Aibrean's, and her eyes—

Darina felt a chill take her. She felt for her Gift. :Majesty—Leesa—forgive me, but—are you all right?:

Leesa dropped her gaze, turning it to her stitches. :I don't know. No—that's not true.: She lifted her eyes to Darina's. :Something is wrong.:

:Wrong?: Darina felt her heart and stomach collide.

:With me.:

A thousand panicked thoughts swirled in her mind, but with a deep breath, Darina silenced them and laid her hand on Leesa's. :Tell me what you want me to do.:

Leesa visibly relaxed and a calm settled upon her. :Nothing—right now, at least.:

:I am here for you, Majesty.: Darina tried to put all the resolve she felt into her mindvoice. :We all are. All of us Heralds—we are yours to command.:

:I know.: Her mindvoice sounded relieved. With a deep breath, she smiled and turned her attention to one of the ladies sitting near her.

Darina reached for her connection with Aibrean. :Did you get that?:

:Yes. I think our queen may be coming back to us.:

:What does Edan say?:

:He thinks she's starting to suspect some kind of treachery, though she's not certain exactly what it may be.:

:Should we tell her she's being poisoned?:

:Edan is talking with Kyrith. We must consider this carefully before we take action. I'm sure Vaden will want to discuss this with you tonight.:

They'd never get to the fealty ceremony preparations at this rate. Not that Darina cared. The fact that Leesa was thinking now like a Herald... she didn't know what brought about the change, but she silently thanked all the gods for it.

She kept a vigilant eye on everyone during the course of the afternoon. For the first time, her language class seemed to come too soon. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, and at last, she reluctantly rose to leave.

Lady Catalla pressed a heavy card into her hand as she took her leave. "You will be able to join us this evening, won't you? I shall take it greatly amiss if you don't."

Darina glanced down at the card... an invitation to dine at Lady Catalla's house. She opened her mouth to refuse, but— "Of course. I'd be delighted."

Only years of training enabled her to maintain her composure.

:Why did you say that?: Aibrean sounded as stunned as Darina felt.

:I don't know.:

"I'm so glad. I'll tell your mother when I see her later—Mella! You mustn't sit there!"

Darina watched her hurry to correct one of the ladies before turning to leave. But catching Karan's form in the corner, fixing Leesa's tea, she moved to her. "Karan?"

Karan paid her no mind.

She touched her shoulder, and Karan blinked as if waking from a dream. "Karan?"

"Forgive me," she said. "I must have been concentrating."

"I should think." Darina smiled. "Did you receive an invitation from Lady Catalla?"

Karan rolled her eyes. "I had planned to spend the evening at Healers, but I can't let Mother and Father suffer through this alone." She glanced at the card in Darina's hand. "Are you coming?"

"I wasn't going to, but yes." And I don't know why. But something—something from deep within—told her to go.

Karan smiled. "I'll see you then."

"All right." Darina hurried from the room. She wouldn't have much time to change into her uniform before class began.

:Darina? You do remember you have a meeting with Vaden tonight?:

:Yes, I remember.: She scampered up the stairs to her room. :But I have to do this—and don't ask me why. I don't know why. But I feel it in my gut.:

Aibrean was silent for a long moment. :Do you want me to have Kyrith tell Vaden?:

"No," she said as she slipped into her room and slipped out of her gown. "I'll tell him."

First Leesa, now this. She shrugged into her uniform and snatched her books before dashing out of her room. She didn't know what any of it meant, but at least it was a change from the nothingness they'd been living with. The inability to move forward, to learn anything of what was happening to them was driving her insane.

Whether this change would prove to be good or not, only time would tell.


A/N: I can't believe it's been nearly 8 months since I updated. I'm sure you thought that I'd given up on this, but I promise, I haven't. And I will finish it. Life just got in the way the past several months with another cross-country move and the death of my father. I sincerely intend to update more regularly, and I hope life will let me do that. Because I have ideas for another fic, and I won't start it until this one is complete.

Thank you for your patience (if you're still here and haven't given up on this story). I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and New Year.