Page 28

And still none would make eye contact with me. I kept my chin up and strode down the main thoroughfare, my legs eating up the distance to my apartment at the far end of the Rim. At the base of my tree, I stared at the balcony and window to my room. A flutter of movement, the curtain swaying with the air currents of a person passing close by them, a pale slender hand touching the edge of the material. I made a circuit of the tree, checking the perimeter, making sure no guards were posted. No surprises waited for me.

It looked like Fern was serious.

I climbed up to my apartment and slipped in the doorway. She hadn’t lit any candles, the dim glow of the setting sun the only illumination. She sat on the bed, twisting her hands over themselves, wiping at her eyes now and again. Every few minutes she’d stand, go to the window, and carefully peek out. How had she missed me coming?

I didn’t move from the shadow I stood in. “What do you want, Fern?”

She spun from the window. “Larkspur, is it really you?”

“Yeah, I got your letter.”

With a speed that had me backing up, she ran at me and flung her arms around me, squeezing me to her. Had it been anyone but Fern and I would have been pulling my spear; she was a total powder puff.

Draped over me, she started to weep, great heaving sobs wracking her body. “Oh, Lark, you have to help me. Your father said I should come to you.”

I pried her off me and helped her sit in my favorite chair. The overstuffed leather seemed to cradle the body just right, giving the sense you were being held. She burrowed into it and I flipped a soft blanket over her trembling shoulders, despite the fact that it wasn’t really cold out. The summer nights were still warm; autumn hadn’t made its presence known yet.

“What do you need help with?” And why the hell would my father send his mistress to me for help in the first place? The second question I kept to myself.

Sniffling, she twisted her hands in her lap. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

My eyebrows shot up. I didn’t have to guess who she meant. “Cassava.”

“How did you know?”

I snorted. “Are you serious? You’re my father’s mistress, and while we all know that’s acceptable, and even encouraged in the other families, Cassava doesn’t play well with others. Does she?”

Fern shook her head, long looping brown curls dancing over her tightly corseted breasts. “No, she doesn’t play well with others.” She gave a soft laugh. “But there is more, something I didn’t tell your father. I was . . . afraid of what would happen.”

A wave of nausea rolled over me at what I thought she might say. “Spit it out.”

She gulped. “Can I have a drink please?”

Rolling my eyes, I went to the kitchen and poured her a cup of wine, knowing that she loved apple wine. “Wine okay?”

“No. Just water.”

I tipped the glass of wine to my lips and drank it down fast. Apple wine was sweet and I needed the fortitude. I rinsed the cup, refilled it with water and took it to Fern. “Do I need to say it, or are you going to say it?” If she wasn’t drinking wine, I could think of only one possible reason why.

Her eyes welled with tears. “I’m so afraid, Lark. She said awful things to me, threatened me, and she threatened”—she waved a hand at her belly—“she said it wouldn’t be the first time she’d killed a rival, or a bastard child.” Her eyes met mine and understanding flowed between us.

I wanted to vomit and I struggled to get the words out. “Did she confess?”

Fern shook her head. “No, she just said she wouldn’t have an upstart whore try to take her place again. That there is no room in the royal line for bastards.”

There it was, the start of the proof I needed against Cassava. But even I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It would be Cassava’s words against Fern’s. Not much of a challenge when one was the queen and the other the queen’s rival. No one would believe Fern.

I paced the room, thinking. There was no way I could leave Fern to fend for herself. From what I knew, she was only middling in strength with the power of the earth. She’d past her testing to become a fourth level elemental, but only just. She would never be able to move any further along in strength. Which meant there was no way she could face down Cassava, who like my father, was a first level elemental. Those at the first level were adept at wielding every aspect of the earth and the powers that lay within it: power over rocks and dirt, over the plants and trees, ability to command any animal, to converse with the mother goddess and to shape shift. I looked around me, suddenly wondering what shape Cassava was able to take on. She could be listening in even now.

My heart clenched and I grabbed Fern’s arm. “Time to go.”

“Can you help me? Will you help me?”

I thought about Griffin, but immediately dismissed it as I helped Fern into the loop of rope that would take her to the ground, my mind rushing ahead through the possibilities. I didn’t know Griffin well enough to put the life of an unborn child, a new sibling, in his hands. My mother had lived for years in the human world going unnoticed until she came to the forest. That was Fern’s only chance.

“Meet me at the western edge, go now, don’t go back to get anything from your rooms. I’ll catch up with you on the path.”

Her eyes were wide, like giant saucers. “Thank you, Lark. Thank you, I won’t forget this. Not ever.”

I pushed her to the west and then I ran in the other direction. “Don’t thank me yet.”

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