A/N: Those characters which belong to Sherwood Smith and those which are entirely of my own invention should be easily distinguishable. However, I have to admit to taking some liberties while fleshing out some minor characters, especially Elenet and Deric. Hopefully no one will take offense at this, and hopefully you'll all enjoy this story.

Lady, In Waiting

by under the weather

"Just because she seldom speaks doesn't mean she doesn't notice, or think."

—Nee, on Elenet

Part I.

To be perfectly honest, it began—like most things in my life—very quietly, on a quiet morning in a quiet little inn on the road to Remalna-city. I sat very quietly in the common room, pressing my lips tight together, and thinking only of one thing: I was late. I was very rarely late, and being unaccustomed to such delay only served to increase my discomfort.

It had been my every intention to be gone with the dawn, but, even as I was preparing to depart, one of the axles of my carriage wheels had broken. My journey had been necessarily postponed as all of my luggage was unloaded, the local blacksmith summoned from his bed, and the difficulty repaired with equal amounts of pleading and cursing. Now, finally, all my belongings were once again being repacked with the care and correctness that my maid demanded.

And I, I could do naught but stare sightlessly at the blankness of the wall before me, endeavoring with all my heart to be a monument of patience, a fountain of understanding. Yet, I fear I was not entirely successful, for I was very much in danger of having a cross word with someone.

The innkeeper seemed well aware of this because he watched me from a safe distance across the room. He lingered near enough to jump at any whim I might have, but far enough away as to avoid being in range of my displeasure, should it decide to rear its head. It was obvious from this strategy that he was a man accustomed to dealing with tempestuous nobility, and I was a little ashamed that he had so quickly placed me in this category with all the rest. Certainly I meant no one any ill-will; I was merely frustrated.

So it was that the moment found us: me, observing the wall; the innkeeper, observing me; and neither of us observing the door. Wood and stone collided with a crack like thunder as it was thrown open. We both started and looked apprehensively at the entrance—for what, I could not say.

In stumbled a middle-aged man, tall and reedy, his face gone pale above his dark, finely-made clothes. "Help…" he mumbled distractedly as he staggered towards us. "An…an accident."

The innkeeper had barely leapt forward to take the newcomer's arm when another figure loomed in the doorway. Or, really, two figures. One of the stable boys stepped through the door, his broad shoulders half-supporting another man. For a moment all I saw was the torn sleeve of his tunic, the mud splashed across his chest and smeared over his face, and the trickle of blood from his nose. Then I looked past those prominent features to the man beneath, and I found myself staring into a pair of unmistakable black eyes.

Lord Deric Toarvendar, Count of Orbanith, regarded me in kind for a breathless instant. Then, to the surprise of all assembled, he grinned. Deric was hardly the handsomest man of my acquaintance, but his smile had the kind of brilliance that made you forget that he was covered in filth, that he was oozing blood, that he had just frightened you out of your skin. "Elenet!" He disentangled himself from his human crutch, drawing himself upright with a slight wince. "It would be you, wouldn't it?"

I hardly had time to decipher that remark because the Count was moving towards me now, and I noticed with a little shock that he was favoring one leg.

"My lord!" protested the first man, who was undoubtedly Deric's manservant. "You musn't—the ankle—I'm certain it's broken!"

Deric ignored this outburst, continuing his limping progress across the room with as much dignity as possible. I could hardly stand it; it was too painful to watch. I was on my feet in an instant, hurrying to meet him halfway.

He offered me a secret, grateful smile, hidden from the rest of the room by a dip of his head. Taking my hand, he brushed warm lips across the back. Straightening again, he searched my face while a teasing smile played at the corners of his mouth. "Why so silent, Elenet? Your staring is unnerving. Tell me the truth, do I really look so awful?"

My horror, my surprise, my amazement had severed the usually restraining connection between my thoughts and my tongue. Without thinking I replied, "You would frighten children, Deric."

Deric laughed cheerfully, I flushed faintly pink, and the rest of the room knew not what to think or where to look.

"Ladies too, apparently," the Count quipped good-naturedly. "Life! I can't recall the last time I saw your face, Elenet. It's been too long."

I was not so much out of my mind that I could be sidetracked for long. "Deric, you must tell me—what has happened?"

"A riding accident—" began the Count's servant, only to have Deric's voice layer effortlessly over his own.

"A riding accident," Deric repeated with much more nonchalance than his valet. "My horse and I had a minor quarrel and shortly thereafter parted ways."

"The wretched beast threw him! Absolutely without provocation. If that fiend were mine—"

"Olearic." The Count of Orbanith was abruptly very serious. His normally jovial tone was replaced by an uncommon note of command. "You are not to lay a finger on that horse. I will not have you whipping the spirit out of any animal of mine."

I laid a hand on his sleeve, drawing those black eyes back to my face. "Is your—are you very much injured?"

This time he claimed possession of both my hands, drawing me nearer with an irresistible tug. "Your concern is touching, my friend."

Feeling myself somewhat in danger of blushing again, I withdrew my fingers deliberately from his grasp. A man like Deric would seize upon any sign of vulnerability to his charms as an encouragement to his attentions. The risk of exposing this kind of weakness to the Count was that he treated women very much the same way he treated his horses. That is not to say he mistreated either; indeed, quite the opposite, he venerated the two sorts of creatures with equal worship. But in the end, flirting was no less a sport to him than horseracing. And Deric, a true sportsman, always aimed to win. "Be serious," I chided gently.

For a fleeting moment, the smile hovering on his face wavered slightly, but it passed almost before I could really believe that I saw it at all. "I am serious," he protested.

"His ankle, my lady," the valet attempted to intercede. "I heard an awful crack when his lordship landed. I am certain it's broken."

"A little bruised," the Count corrected. "It bears my weight some."

"Should you be standing here so? Can you walk?" I asked.

"To be honest, it feels less than wonderful. May I share your couch?"

"By all means. It's not mine." I slipped my arm through his, and he leaned ever so gently on me as I led him to the seat I had recently vacated. Sitting next to him, I frowned faintly at his still pleasant expression. "Deric, I can't take you seriously when your face looks like the underside of a puddle." I gestured to catch the innkeeper's attention. "Bring some water and a cloth for washing."

A number of young serving women and men had gathered, curious, during our exchange, and one was quickly dispatched on this errand.

"Elenet, you do too much," Deric objected warmly.


"How lucky I am to find you here," he went on without acknowledging my interruption, "and how strange it is, too."

"The roads to Athanarel are always busy," I said dismissively.

"True, but I don't think you have been this way since…last autumn? Spring? It has been a long time, regardless. It's fortunate that our paths crossed."

My lips drew thin as I clenched my teeth. Not that he was being less than cordial, but a few more words and he would be trespassing on sensitive ground. It was just as well that the serving woman returned at that moment, bearing a bowl. I reached for her burden, but Olearic intercepted it before me.

"Allow me, my lady," he said and began wiping away the dirt caked on Deric's face.

The Count hissed his breath between his teeth as his manservant swiped at cut flesh. Recovering some, he focused his attention to me. "Elenet, after everything, I think—burn it!" He stopped to snatch the cloth out of Olearic's hand as it passed over a particularly sensitive scrape. "Well, I don't think I'm much in the mood for riding any more today," he said dryly, returning to his earlier line of conversation. "Could I beg a ride in your carriage?"

With the ghost of a smile, I acquiesced. I was really in no position to refuse him. "My carriage is yours, without a doubt. If you would excuse me, though, I should see that everything is in order. I'm sure you would like a little time to refresh yourself before we leave."

"Of course," he agreed immediately, but when I stood and turned to walk away, he caught me by the wrist, stopping my progress. "I am in your debt," he said with unnerving somberness.

"Ridiculous," I shook off his gratitude. "It's nothing between friends."

I left then to check on the status of my vehicle and to relay new instructions to my staff, securing a place in my retinue for Deric, his servant, and their mounts. I also made sure that the innkeeper was handsomely rewarded for his hospitality before I rejoined the Count in front of the inn. It's always advantageous to leave a bit of goodwill wherever you travel. You never know what kind of silly rumors might arise about young nobility rendezvousing under strange circumstances in small inns off the main road to Athanarel.

Deric, wearing a fresh countenance and a fresh shirt, stood supported on the arm of his valet, but he slipped the man's grip in order to boost me into the carriage, dazzling me once again with that disarming smile of his. As I settled into my bench, Deric himself was helped to his seat by Olearic. The door was closed, insulating us from the road and the mud and, most especially, from everyone else of our acquaintance.

Allowing my eyes to rest for a moment on the man across from me, I had to admit disappointment in finding myself with a companion for the last leg of my drive to Athanarel. Even if I had desired camaraderie, I would scarce have chosen the Count. I liked him well enough, but it had always seemed to me that he laughed too loudly and that he lacked a certain discretion.

But I knew at once that was an unkind assessment. I had too long been judging all men by an impossibly tall, blond standard, and it was high time I reformed. That being the case, I decided to allow poor Deric a few flaws. After all, he had always been an entertaining man, good-natured, and sometimes his bluntness could be a refreshing thing.

Smiling slightly at him, I silently invited conversation, but for the first time he looked surprisingly as if he were sharing some of the embarrassment I was feeling. "Elenet," he began, rubbing unconsciously at the arm that had broken his fall, "I feel like I owe you an apology. Imposing on you like this—"

I waved a hand, which stopped his words well enough. "Trust me, Deric. It is no trouble. Besides, it is not everyday that I am called upon to rescue imperiled travelers. I am better for the experience."

"A genuine hero," he agreed, dark eyes lighting with pleasure. "Tell me, what other adventures have you had lately? Surely there must have been some interesting escapades to keep you from us for so long."

"Now there is a story that has already been told." I barely suppressed a sigh. I wanted to think about where I had come from almost as little as I wanted to think about where I was going. "Life in Grumareth is wearisome as ever, though it has its rewards. You know enough of me not to doubt the dullness of such a tale."

"I can't believe it's quite so boring as you say. But if you've come back to Athanarel seeking diversion, I assure you it's something we have in spades." He squinted thoughtfully at me. "Let me think…There must have been something that'll interest you, an elopement or a broken heart or a wasted fortune…" He shook his head and grinned. "No, none that comes to mind. I'm an extraordinarily poor gossip, it appears. You'll wonder why you ever came back at all…well, with the exception of poor Meliara and all the hubbub surrounding her. That's why you're here after all, isn't it?"

I couldn't help my curiosity over the peculiar glimmer in the eyes of the Queen's old flirt as he referenced her current predicament, but I was determined to avoid this subject, too. "You are a poor gossip. Meliara is old news. Why not tell me something of yourself? I assume you were on your way back from Orbanith?"

"Yes, though it was only a short visit." If he noticed my maneuverings, he gave no sign of it. "A mare of mine had just foaled, and I was eager to see the colt." I raised an uncertain brow, which he answered with a smile. "Don't think that cool expression hides anything from me, Elenet. No, I see right through you. You're thinking what a fool I am."

"Never a fool," I denied, "but you have to admit your reasons are a little…curious."

He leaned his head back against the seat with a sound somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "You do think me a fool! But I have been working on this particular bloodline since I was a boy. A little personal project that keeps me amused."

I shook my head, mystified, but pursued the topic nonetheless. "Anyway, I'm certain Del was disappointed your visit was so brief." Adelia, Del, was Deric's younger sister. An old friend of mine, like Nee, from those days when we had been nothing more than excess aristocracy, the two of us rarely met nowadays since our ascendancy among the ranks of nobility. I was absorbed in Grumareth, and she often attended to Orbanith while the Count served at Court.

"Oh, she was disappointed by my trip, but not like you're imagining. A cousin is soon to be married, and she's been staying at Athanarel for the wedding. You'll see her yourself soon enough."

I smiled then, perhaps my first genuine expression since our drive began. "I'm pleased to hear it."

"And she'll be equally pleased, I'm sure. I don't believe we've been together, all of us, since Nee's wedding. We'll have to invite you out a night or two, if you'll let us drag you away from your rooms."

I narrowed my eyes at him, half in suspicion and half in humor. "What are implying about my social habits?"

"I wouldn't dare imply anything." He leaned forward to snatch to something off the cushion next to me. My fan. "Not when the results of your solitude look like this." He expertly snapped the fan open with a flick of his wrist, turning it this way and that to examine the garden scene I had painted on it. "Lovely." Simple praise, but the unexpectedness of it left me tongue-tied.

Evidently, Deric was not waiting for a reply, because he swiftly closed the fan again. Inclining forward once more, he pressed the object back into the palm of my hand where it lay on my knees. As he withdrew, his fingertips brushed mine in a way that might have been accidental, but then again maybe not. "You were always talented."

The heat of embarrassment and of alarm both flashed through me with equal speed, and I forced a soft laugh. "And when have you ever taken notice of such things, Deric? I have no gift for painting horses."

He smiled, and his chuckle was full-bodied, more honest than my own. "I suppose I have finally forgiven that failing of yours."

"Well, I have not forgiven you," I teased, hoping to ease the tension I felt so acutely. "You promised me diversion, and you have hardly given me any. Tell me more of yourself."

"It won't be said that I ever went back on a promise," he answered with a shrugging grin, "but I never said I wouldn't bore you, Elenet."

He then proceeded to entertain me with an enthusiastic account of the last day's races, not neglecting any detail: every obstacle, every competitor, every competitor's horse, and who bet for or against whom. His narrative carried us well within the bounds of Athanarel, and I scarcely had to provide any more input that an encouraging nod or smile.

We clattered up first to the doors of the Orbanith residence, as per my instructions, and one of my servants was there to open the door before Deric could even shift forward for the latch. Olearic was not far behind, standing just to the side as he supervised his master's descent. Deric, with a few discouraging gestures in his manservant's direction, exited of his own power and paused for just a moment at the foot of the carriage. Turning to face me, he said, "I hope we'll meet again soon. No matter what you say, I'm going to find a way to discharge my debt to you."

And then, to ensure he had the final word on the subject, he shut the door definitively.

I sat back heavily against the seat, partly out of surprise, partly out of annoyance, but mostly out of relief to be on my own again. The carriage shifted jerkily into motion, and I closed my eyes, kept them closed the short drive to the Grumareth House, but those few moments of peace were quickly forgotten on my arrival. Doors were thrown open, horses were unhitched, servants bustled back and forth carrying packages, voices singing out orders without the slightest direction from me.

I felt unaccountably lost in the midst of it. Wandering aimlessly up the steps while those around me moved with purpose, I reached the entrance hall and stopped dead. If anyone noticed my strange behavior, they had the sense to keep their eyes down and their feet in motion.

I can't claim that I spent much time in the Grumareth House during my childhood, but it seemed by merely stepping inside I had stirred the ghosts of my past. My great uncle was long dead, reduced to pebbles for his grasping alliance with the Merindars, but the oppression of his presence still lingered in this place. In spite of the dinner parties I had thrown here, in spite of the decorations I had added, in spite of all my efforts, I had yet to truly claim this place as my own. Like the title I had inherited, it still fit me awkwardly, and I couldn't escape the feeling that something in this house knew that and judged me for it.

Perhaps a little light will my lift my spirits, I thought with some emotion too pale to be hope. I crossed to the window and threw open the curtains, and in the shaft of sunlight I could see the dust motes dancing a graceful, swirling waltz. I sighed and passed a hand over my eyes, a new weight settling across my shoulders. There was so much to be done; the house would have to be cleaned from floor to rafters, and all the trunks still to be unpacked seemed suddenly overwhelming.

A servant caught my attention by clearing her throat and dipped a quick curtsey. "Your bags have been placed in your room, my lady."

I smiled a vague thank-you and moved upstairs. Well, there could be no better starting point than my own quarters. The rest would follow naturally.

It was a comforting thought, or lack of thought. The mindless daze of house-keeping, folding and hanging and pressing and organizing, smothered the quivering anxiety in my gut with linen and lace and layers of dust. But it was not meant to last long.

"Your Grace," my maid, Liset, addressed me. I was surprised out of my reverie by the sight of her, particularly because I had instructed her to oversee the stocking of the kitchen. She gave me an odd, uncomfortable look, although the rest of her face was unreadable as she announced, "You have a visitor. Her Majesty, the Queen, is awaiting you in the sitting room."

I understood then the somewhat flustered expression Liset was wearing. It would never occur to Meliara that it might be inconvenient to drop in unannounced on someone just arrived at Court. Nevertheless, no one would ever say a word against her for doing so because she was Queen, but also because she was Meliara, who always meant well in her bumbling way.

"Very good," I acknowledged. "Have some refreshments brought as soon as possible." I laid aside the dress I had been unpacking and cast a hopeless glance at my appearance in the mirror. I smoothed a hand over my gown, but it did nothing to remedy the fact that it was dreadfully rumpled by my time on the road and smudged with dirt from kneeling on the floor. Then I shook my head, firmly instructing myself not to bother with such trivial thoughts, and went down to welcome my guest.

Meliara stood with her back to me, gazing idly out one of the long windows in the parlor. At the sound of my soft step in the room, she turned her head, and I could see that her skin was flushed a rosy shade of pink from the exertion of her walk. Then, the rest of her body followed the rotation of her neck, and for a heartbeat all my eyes could focus on was the swelling under her gown as she rested her hands casually on her very pregnant belly.

My first thought was, This is why I have stayed away so long. But I quickly quashed that reaction. I had been preparing for this moment for weeks now, and I was determined not to be petty. Mel had asked me back to Athanarel, she had written out of friendship, and I would rise to the occasion for her sake.

Expelling a small sigh, I set my hands on my hips. "My dear, please tell me you didn't come all this way just to see me arrive."

Laughing, she came forward and threw her arms around me, although hugging was made exceptionally difficult by the round protuberance of her abdomen. "Don't you lecture me, too!" she admonished lightheartedly as she drew back. "I may be Queen, but it seems that no one has had any qualms about ordering me about of late."

Her mood was contagious, and I was wearing a smile to match hers. "I would never dream of ordering you about, Your Majesty. However, as your friend, I might suggest ever so gently that we take a seat. Personally, I'm exhausted from my travels and in need of some refreshment."

"Suggestions I am completely agreeable to." Mel, a little heavy on her feet, soon settled her significantly expanded frame into a chair with a transparent sigh of relief. A servant swiftly produced a glass of water, which I placed in the Queen's hands myself. She graced both of us with a grateful smile, catching me in a merry blue gaze. "Have I told you yet how glad I am to have you here, Elenet? I've been in desperate need of an ally."

I raised an inquisitive brow as I assumed my own seat. "Surely you exaggerate. It can't be half so bad as you're implying."

She groaned and covered her face for a moment with one hand. "Trust you to be sensible about it, Elen. Now I feel a complete brute for complaining at all."

"Banish the thought!" I had only meant to question her, not criticize. Unfortunately, despite some great strides, Meliara and I still managed to misunderstand each other quite frequently. "I'm certain you've earned every right to your complaints, and you will find no ear more sympathetic than mine."

"No, no," she waved off my offer. "I should never have begun at all. Everyone has been astonishingly kind."

"Kind?" I echoed, not missing the grimace that flitted briefly across her features as she spoke. "Mel, when you put it in such a way, it sounds absolutely unbearable."

There was no mistaking my gentle teasing, and the corners of her mouth lifted once again. "Really, everything is greatly improved since Elestra arrived. She insists on handling all manner of things herself, arranging entertainment and sitting in on Petitioners' Court and doing just about everything she doesn't think me capable of at the moment. I'm under vastly less pressure thanks to her…but now I'm at loose ends about what to do with myself half the time. Sometimes I can't help but think she's a greater relief to Danric than me."

She cast me another glance, this one almost shy. "Truth is—oh, it sounds so silly coming from someone who is constantly attended to—but I've been kind of lonely lately. Nee was snowed in Tlanth all winter—not that I would ask her to come back so soon after her last visit. It's so hard for her now, traveling with little Kitten. And Danric and Savona are wonderful, but there's only so much men can understand. I've been…at a loss for female company."

I smiled obligingly, though I scarcely knew what she expected of me. I was neither a mother nor a married woman; I was about as knowledgeable as the Duke or the King.

She must have sensed some of my hesitance, for she colored slightly and promptly jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion. "Not that I'm making any demands on your time here! I'm sure that you have plenty of business to occupy you while you're in the city."

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure," I promised, reaching across the distance between us to give a reassuring squeeze of her arm. "There's nothing more important to me at this time than your company."

She blushed a little harder and ducked her head. "You're too good."

I barely resisted shaking my head in disbelief. Only Meliara would think it beneath anyone to wait on the Queen of Remalna. I wondered sometimes if she would ever become accustomed to our compliments, or if she would be the only person to never see her own goodness. I, of all people, had the least reason to like her, but any initial hostility I might have felt quickly gave way in the weeks following her betrothal to Vidanric under the barrage of her humor, her honor, her bravery, and her constant humbleness. I could hardly resent the love that Danric felt for her because I was equally charmed by that same character. She had always sought me out, done everything within her power to put me at ease, and had never given me the least cause for offence. She had been a pillar of support throughout my difficulties in Grumareth, always ready with an easy smile or a self-depreciating joke or a long letter to idle away the endlessly cold nights while I was away from Athanarel. She was my friend, and the source of all my heartbreak—and I could do naught but care for her.

Lifting her head again, she went on, "It's just when I wrote that letter, I thought—I mean, I worry I've asked too much—I really did wish to have a friend near, but was it presumptuous of me?"

"Mel," I said for emphasis, calling her gaze to my own, "I was looking for an excuse to return to Athanarel, and your letter was better than that—it was a reason. Therefore, I refuse to hear any more on the subject. Let's talk of other things."

And for awhile we did just that. I asked after this and that friend, and she inquired after my journey and whether I had been playing my harp. We were in the midst of discussing my resolution of a land dispute with a neighboring baron, when Liset entered, looking even more flustered than before. She simply had to announce his name and a pit of emptiness opened up in my chest. My heart sank into it.

Then, she stepped aside, and I nearly drove my teeth through my tongue at the sight of the tall figure in my doorway. He acknowledged the two of us with a wry smile, and in those long gray eyes was a revelation: This is why I have stayed away so long.

"Mel, Elenet," Vidanric greeted us, "I'm glad to see you both safely arrived."

Mel fixed him with a look of eloquent confusion. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Only that I had a report from a lady that you were walking yourself half to death." His smile stretched wider as Mel's temper rose. "Happily, she was mistaken. You look as much alive as you did this morning."

"What's this?" his wife queried suspiciously, eyes narrowing. "Have you set spies on me to track all my movements?"

"My dear," he soothed, "do you really think I would waste valuable resources in such a way? It's not so difficult as that to keep an eye on a pregnant queen. I was only as far away as the Throne Room, but between here and there I must have had the report of your escapade dinned in my ear by no less than a dozen of your concerned subjects."

"And so you came all this way to see that I hadn't done myself any harm, then?"

"No," he drawled with lazy amusement. "I came 'all this way' to see my friend Elenet."

She puffed out a breath, annoyance dissolving into laughter. "Oh. Well, that's all right."

"But since I happened to find you here," he added, crossing the floor, "I thought I might remind you that you've been swearing for a week now that you need to write to Oria. It seemed to me that now might be a perfect opportunity to get that particular task out of the way. And I also thought that if you were to finish your correspondence in a timely fashion, you just might be able to lie down and rest for a little before dinner. That sounded like such a lovely notion, I went ahead and ordered round a carriage to drive you back to our rooms." He extended a hand to her. "After all, I couldn't have you walking around, stirring up any more trouble."

The Queen regarded the proffered hand, the corners of her mouth wobbling somewhere between a frown and a smile. At last, a decision was reached as her lips decided on a smile, albeit a begrudging one. She sighed, "The things I do for you…"

"Your graciousness is astounding," he agreed.

Vidanric helped her to rise, and I suppressed a frown as I said my goodbyes and promised to visit her the next day. To me, she still seemed so small and fragile, her slight form dominated entirely by the expansion of the child within her, and I knew well enough that she would never have agreed to retire if she had not been truly exhausted. I wondered if anyone had spoken with her about spending the remainder of her term comfortably in bed, though I was certain she would be quick to reject such a proposal.

Troubled some by these thoughts, as well as others, I drifted across the room, running my fingers over the surfaces of the furniture to assess them for dust. I was halfway to the windows when I was startled by the sound of Vidanric returning, since I had expected him to accompany Meliara. He came close enough to take my hand, pressing my palm with his fingers, but he did not kiss the back.

"I hope I'm not interrupting," he said, looking a little too grave.

"If you are, I'm glad of it." I was glad. I was also, by turns, miserable, anxious, agitated, and a little nauseated.

"I'm afraid you won't be glad for long." He gestured for me to take a seat, and he assumed the chair vacated by Mel. "I hardly have a chance to tell you how happy I am to see you again, then I have to go begging you for favors."

I waited patiently as he paused, drawing himself a little straighter as he prepared an exposition. "I've had some concerns recently that there's a spy in our midst here at Court. Little things, almost unnoticeable at first. Broken seals that weren't replaced quite perfectly, items that disappeared for short periods of time only to reappear in places I had already searched. They're so inconsequential, in fact, that tracing them to their source or even pinpointing when exactly they began is somewhat problematic.

"But I do have my suspicions. A new Denlieff ambassador is recently arrived at Court, an accomplished soldier and a commander of the Their Majesties' army. He is the second son of one of the King and Queen's favorite courtiers, a Duke of some consequence, but this commander lacks any land or title of his own. Their Majesties' letter of introduction rather slyly implied that they greatly desired to see him well-established in the world, and as fate may have it, well-married. How much better for them if he were married to some foreign heiress who could provide him with all the rewards the Crown wants to give him, without ever having to dip into the Crown's coffers."

I found myself leaning forward with interest as he spoke, and when I glanced up, I was surprised to discover those gray eyes measuring me solemnly. I had to search for my voice in the silence that fell over us. "How can I be of assistance?"

"You understand how precarious relations with Denlieff have been since their mercenaries participated in the Merindar plot. I would not risk what stability we have gained by accusing this man—at least not without a significant amount of evidence to support my claim. I thought, since you are of Denlieff ancestry yourself, you might be able to draw his interest. You could spend some time in his company, insinuate yourself into his confidence, and perhaps substantiate my belief in his guilt."

I considered this information for some time, mulling each detail over in turn, and Vidanric remained uncomplainingly silent all the while. At last, I said in a carefully neutral tone, "You wish me to seduce him?"

Danric's eyelids lifted in surprise and he rocked back in his seat a little. Then he laughed, quick and soft. "Yes, yes, I suppose that is what I said, though I hadn't thought of it exactly that way at the time. But, Elen, you must understand that it's in your power to tell me no. I know you returned to spend this time with Mel, and I would never do anything to deprive you of that. I would never have asked at all except that your arrival was so coincidental with my dilemma, and I have always relied on you above almost everyone else."

I could not decide whether to glow or to simmer in that gentle statement of trust. "You would not have asked if you did not truly need my help."

"Then may I have the honor of introducing him to you two nights from now?"

I smiled, for there was little I could think to say, and Danric knew my answer on sight. He made sure, then, that I was quite secure in his gratitude, but I hadn't the heart to really listen to any of his expressions of appreciation. We parted soon thereafter, both distracted, but not antagonistic. It was not the first time that Vidanric had asked me to be his eyes and ears, but it was the first time that this required any more on my part than riffling through old letters and eavesdropping at doorways. I hoped desperately that I was equal to the challenge so I would not have to disappoint him.

For what remained of the day, I went through the motions of organizing my household, keeping my body occupied to distract my mind, and I was rewarded that night when I fell, exhausted, into a dreamless sleep. The next day, I found more time for leisure, tuning my harp and reading a little from a history book between other obligations. I ate a late meal with the royal couple and a few old friends, and the day after that I returned once more for breakfast with Meliara—a meal that was decidedly more appetizing since a particular person was not in attendance. I sat with the Queen for quite some time, but I was called away in the afternoon by business in the city. There were some misunderstandings with my creditors, and by the time it was all resolved I barely had time to prepare for dinner.

The evening meal was a formal affair this night, attended by most the Court. We dined imperial style, for Mel could scarcely be expected to kneel formally with all the weight distributed in her front. I was seated near Princess Elestra and Savona, as well as others like Trishe and Geral, and I took refuge in the familiarity of their company and the levity of their conversation. Tonight was to be the performance of my life, and I was unduly nervous.

Afterwards there was music and some dancing, while I was quickly claimed by this or that friend for enthusiastic greetings and exchanges of news. A few of these and I had nearly forgotten my anxiety, when I overheard a well-known drawl nearby.

"…shall see to it that you are acquainted. She can't be far—ah, there!"

A hand gently wrapped around my elbow, and I glanced up with a rehearsed smile into Danric's face. His eyes, however, were somber as they met mine. I wished fervently that he wouldn't be so concerned; now was hardly the time for him to begin to show an interest in who I flirted with.

"Elenet, a gentleman has expressed an interest in meeting you. It seems you two share something in common."

Quietly, I cast my eyes past the King to the man hovering beyond. Standing just as tall as Vidanric, with broad shoulders and a military posture, he was perhaps in his early thirties—older than me, certainly. He was attractive in a subdued way, distinguished by thickly curling hair the color of chestnuts and pale green eyes.

Danric performed the proper introductions over us: "Commander Ilon Lores, may I present Lady Elenet Kheraev, Duchess of Grumareth." I swept my most elegant and leisurely curtsey, and the Denlieff lord honored me with a bow that was perhaps a shade too low.

When he straightened, he spoke in a rich, deep voice, slightly colored by his accent, "Your Grace, strangely enough I claim a common acquaintance. I had the pleasure of the lady, your mother's company when she last visited our King and Queen. After speaking with her, I knew I could not waste an opportunity to meet her daughter."

My surprise was genuine, and I allowed some of it to seep into my expression. "Truly? Was she—did she seem well to you, Commander Lores?"

"Perfectly so." Heavy eyebrows drew together. "But have you not had word from her yourself recently?"

I felt acutely the embarrassment of the moment—my punishment for speaking too rashly. "I have, but letters seem so unreliable at times. I have offered her a place in Grumareth, but she continues to refuse. I fear she departed Remalna on bad terms, and the charms of Denlieff make it even more difficult for her to return."

When the Commander chuckled I knew I had been redeemed. "I would accuse you of deliberate flattery, if I did not know you spoke the absolute truth. I cannot imagine why she ever left Denlieff in the first place, but I am admittedly biased. Tell me, when were you last in my homeland and why did I not have the pleasure of your company?"

"Though I hesitate to admit, the last visit I made was when I was still a small child."

"A shame," he declared, and I liked his smile. It filled out his face and deepened the lines around his mouth and eyes—well-etched signs that many such smiles had passed the same way before. "A shame," he repeated, his eyes returning to Vidanric. "Your Majesty, you must allow me to beg leave of you to remedy this sad situation. You have been too kind to a blundering foreigner, and I will not see you divided from your charming wife a moment longer. Her Grace shall keep me company and see to it that I am not lost, while I slip stories of my Denlieff into her ears."

One last assessing look from his gray eyes, and Vidanric took his leave of us, his mission successfully completed. The rest was entirely dependent upon me, and I could not imagine failing him.

"Your Grace," the Commander said, stepping closer, "would I be too bold to ask—you see, I have been fiendishly practicing these Court dances of yours, and I am eager to impress someone."

"I am eager to be impressed, if only you would call me Elenet."

"Elenet." He smiled again. "And you must call me Ilon. Yes, it helps to be better acquainted with your partner before you proceed to step on one another's toes."

With a small smile of compliance, I allowed him to slip his arm through mine and escort me to the space where other couples were already dancing. The elegant rustle of my skirts as we moved across the room was a quiet reassurance to my fluttering heart. I glided in an aura of deep burgundy fabric, embellished all around with embroidered gold sunbursts that playfully reflected the light of the glowglobes. I had kept my throat deliberately bare of any jewels in order to draw attention to the deep, square neckline, though garnet drops hung on my ears, and my hair had been dressed remarkably by my maid's expert hand in my rush to prepare for dinner. Despite all this, I was still plain and thin—I had no pretensions to the charms of a Tamara Chamadis—but I had displayed my humble offerings to the best of my ability. And even more, I had two alluring assets which so many other young ladies of fashion and beauty lacked: land and a title. Therein must lay my confidence.

Ilon did not, in fact, step on my toes, not even once. (When I commented on this, he laughingly attributed it to all the marching he had done as a soldier.) The movement of the dance was a superb facilitator to our conversation, for we were often separated for long moments when we could say nothing at all, but when we did speak it was pleasant. Ilon, I found, was full of exaggerated modesty and outright flattery—everything one could wish for in a true gentleman. I quite forgot that I was supposed to be on my guard, which probably ameliorated my ruse even more than if I had been entirely diligent.

We had finished our second dance together when a familiar figure presented itself at my elbow. Deric made an apologetic gesture as he interrupted. "It seems I'm always to be asking something of you, Elenet, but if your partner is willing to spare you, I'd like to claim this next dance."

There was no excuse I could make, and Ilon charitably relinquished my hand to the Count, having secured my promise that I would find him again before the evening came to an end. Deric readily led me back among the other couples, and we fell comfortably into step, having often danced this way together in our years at Court. Yet, I felt the awkwardness of the moment, not only because I was wondering why the Count had made an effort to seek me out, but also because I was thinking of Ilon and my promise to Vidanric.

"You're quiet tonight," Deric observed as he led me through a turn.

"I was simply admiring how well you dance for a man with a broken ankle." The lie slid as easily through my lips as my hand through his. In mid-revolution I only caught the merest glimpse of his bright, flashing smile.

"Remarkable, isn't it?" he agreed in conspiratorial tones. "It's almost as if it were never broken at all." In spite of myself, I smiled, and the improvement of my mood only encouraged him. "I'm glad to see you loosen up a bit. For a moment there, I was afraid you were angry with me. I am sorry to take you away from your foreigner, but I needed an opportunity to ask you something. You see, my sister and I would like to invite you to a dinner party tomorrow evening, and I wanted to know if you were otherwise engaged."

I turned my head to look at him uncertainly. "Of course I'll come…but couldn't you have asked me that just as easily while we were standing still?"

"Maybe," he conceded, "but it seemed like the perfect excuse to ask you to dance."

As I gaped, trying to formulate some response, the music ended. He held on to my hand, though, and hopefully asked, "Another?"

"I think not," I murmured. "I can scarcely draw a breath."

"Some air, then." I hadn't the time to protest, for he was already drawing me along behind him, parting the crowd with a few polite words. At last, we emerged into a large, vacant hall, where he finally surrendered possession of my hand.

I glanced back the way we had come, my mind on Ilon. "Do you think we will be missed? Perhaps we should—"

He grinned, not waiting for me to finish my thought. "You shouldn't always be so predictable, Elenet. Besides, it's nice out here, the quiet of it. Enjoy it, just for a moment. I promise we'll go back soon."

Reluctantly, I did enjoy it. The cool, open air felt revitalizing as it flowed over my flushed skin, and my ears savored the empty, echoing sounds of the hall after the assaulting clamor of music and people. I leaned back against the wall, allowing my eyes to drift close, and for an endless moment I was simply tired and content. When I open my eyes, it was to find Deric's fixed on me, the dark globes of his irises shining with reflected light. "Yes?" I queried.

"Oh," he said indistinctly, returning from some reverie, "I was merely thinking."

"What were you thinking of?" My nerves were twanging with premonition.

"For one, how I should repay you."

"I wish you would give up the notion that you owe me anything," I replied levelly. "It was nothing. You owe me nothing."

"Is that all?" He raised his eyebrows in an expression of amusement and surprise. "This'll be simple enough, then. If I owe you nothing, then I only need to give you something that's worth nothing."

I knew it was coming, but still I did nothing. I cannot explain it, or if I could, I would probably think myself mad.

He leaned forward slightly. He was not much taller than me, so positioning his mouth was no more complicated than that easy motion. And then his lips covered mine, warm and soft and tasting somewhat of the wine he had been drinking. His eyes were closed, and I stared into his unguarded face, thinking that this was not so terrible as I had expected it to be.

I had been kissed often enough during my time at Court, out of sport or out of ambition. This was not like that at all. This was no transaction, this was no calculating maneuver, this wasn't even a game. It was nothing. Deric had said he meant nothing by it, and I expected nothing from it, and it was relief to have this thing with no complicating motives, something given freely.

I closed my eyes.

When I didn't exhibit any resistance, his hands came up to frame my face, and while his lips were scorching as they brushed against mine a second time, his fingertips settled on my cheeks as gentle as the first drops of rain. I shivered at their cool touch, which served to jolt me back into reality. I drew back sharply until my head nearly hit the wall, breaking the contact between us.

He laughed. He was still near enough that his breath tickled my skin. "I've always wondered what that would be like."

I angled my head to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of his expression. "Surely not always," I whispered incredulously because I could think of no other reaction.

"Long enough." He stepped back, and I found room for breathing again. "Come along." He held out his hand to me. "I promised to take you back."

I did not take his hand, but I walked beside him down the hall and through the doors. He seemed to find this amusing, too, because a smirk kept stretching his lips wider and wider. I was not in the mood to humor him, though, because it was only then occurring to me what a disastrous mistake I had made.

Fortunately, it did not appear that Ilon witnessed my entrance. However, I had not gotten far through the crowd when he found me still in the company of the Count.

"Elenet," he greeted me with a smile that I was incredibly undeserving of. "I have been quite lost without you."

"My apologies for not returning her sooner, then," said Deric, while I was still wrestling with my tongue. "The lady was in need of a little air, though."

"Air?" Ilon's green eyes sharpened with concern. "Are you unwell, Elenet? You look a little pale."

Indeed, I was sure all the blood had drained out of my face. There was something absurdly unreal about facing the man I planned to seduce while standing next to the man who had just been kissing me. "I feel fine," I murmured, recovering a little. "I simply need a drink of water."

"No," insisted Ilon. "Your valor does you credit, but if you're ill, I won't have you stay here any longer for my sake." He turned to Deric. "Could you have a carriage or something brought round, my lord…?"

"Deric," the Count supplied generously, with a nod of agreement.

"Deric," Ilon acknowledged. "Thank you."

Deric disappeared to arrange for my transport before I could even raise my voice, and Ilon was quickly gone, too, to fetch some water. He returned and promptly attached himself to my elbow, fussing over me as I sipped from the glass and mumbled little affirmations of my perfect health, which he ignored. He held on to me as he led me out the steps of the Residence and only released his gentle grip on my arm when he saw me safely tucked into a carriage for the trip back to the Grumareth House.

Before shutting the door, he picked up my hand and brushed his lips across the back. "Sleep well, Elenet," he said in parting.

As he passed out of sight, I felt a wave of dizziness pass over me, as if I were truly sick. I could scarcely believe my luck. Not only had my distraction with Deric not ruined my chances of gaining Ilon's trust, but it had also actually endeared me to him in a way that I could never have predicted. And still, still, I could not shake the uncanny feeling that I had made some colossal error from which I would not recover.