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.Belinda shook her head, catching his fingers to kiss their tips, then whispered, “You can’t be seen with me, my love.This cannot be found out.Go ahead, and I’ll make my own way behind you.How long did you send the guards away for?”“Until I seek them and send them back to duty.I’ll give you a few minutes to slip away.Be careful, Beatrice.” He hesitated, words caught in his gaze, then brushed his thumb over her bottom lip and left her knowing that things remained unspoken.Belinda watched until he was out of sight and his footsteps were faded before she drew shadows around herself, using her cloak of stillness to push away echoes of the things he hadn’t said.Even so, they followed her as she slipped through the palace halls naked and unseen, until resolve faltered and she dropped into a corner, hands clutched over her head as she keened, all but silent, through her teeth.Duty lay on her like weights, pressing down into the corners of her mind.Never in her life had it seemed onerous, never something to be shied from, and yet the heart of her wanted to keep the promise she’d made to the prince.Wanted to bolt from the palace and book passage on a ship to somewhere mad; on a ship to the Columbias, where no one could ever find them.Attending dreams had never been her station in life, was not now her station, and still the wish to follow them crashed through her with every heartbeat, pulling her body apart joint by joint, as the cold had done in the oubliette, sinking deeper and deeper into her.Her breath came raw in her throat, hurting, dry sobs accompanied burning eyes.Sickness roiled up, sharp and bitter, and she rolled onto her hands and knees to hack sour mouthfuls onto the floor.Her fingertips found the seams of tightly placed flagstones.Belinda dug her nails down and inched forward, dragging herself from crack to crack.Duty lay ahead of her.Loyalty to her queen, to Aulun, to her mother, to the throne: all the things she had ever been.Somehow there was blood on her fingers, beneath the nails, but she crept onward, knees scraping, eyes dry, mind screaming protest and duty trumping all.Steam bathed the laundry hall, comforting to muscles strained with the effort of continuing on.Teeth gritted with anger at her weakness, Belinda pulled herself into a pile of rough warm cloth, undisturbed by the sharp smell of sweat and work clinging to the unwashed clothing.She was not meant to lose control like that: she ought to have been stronger than the cold that had invaded her core; ought to have been far stronger than the inexplicable war between loyalty and—even then she shied from the word, unwilling, perhaps unable, to name the emotion Javier had awakened in her.It was damnable, whatever it was: Belinda Primrose had spent a lifetime making herself stronger than the things around her; to find herself fallible now was an outrage.To find herself longing for a life other than the one she’d known was inconceivable.There was work to be done, and everything she was, everything she had ever been, everything she would ever be, was bound to that work.And yet she could not stop trembling: her muscles ached with the tremors and her jaw locked from keeping her teeth from clattering together.Laundry maids hauled clothing from around her, cursing at the cloth’s unaccountable weight.Desperate, she crawled further into the pile of fabric, burying herself in it and releasing witchpower for more conventional methods of hiding.She had slept in the oubliette, but rest had evaded her; that she could not afford to give into the fresh weakness of warmth and darkness was her last clear thought.She didn’t awaken until weight left her body and cold air brushed over her.She came out of the laundry before a maid’s gasp became a scream, one hand slapped over the girl’s mouth and her other arm wrapped around her neck, cutting off air.“Scream and you die.What time is it?” She loosened her fingers and the maid caught a tiny, terrified breath of air.“S-supper, my lady.” The appellation made Belinda want to laugh: such deference was so well-bred into the serving classes as to come through even under the most absurd of circumstances.Had she been caught as the poor girl in her arms was, she, too, would have been as polite.Supper.The day was gone, then, and her chances to make right most everything were slipping away.Sleep had cleared her mind: there were so few things that truly needed doing, and all of them were to be done in the name of duty, not desire.“Has Robert Drake been executed yet?”The girl shook her head, frantic little motion.Belinda exhaled in quiet relief, then brushed her lips against the girl’s cheek.“Do you know who I am, girl?”She nodded this time, and Belinda clucked her tongue, soft sound of dismay.“You ought to have said no.”Witchpower roared with satisfaction as Belinda cast the girl’s naked body away minutes later, blood on her thighs staining the laundry, knotted fabric at her throat hiding any marks Belinda’s small hands may have left.She smoothed the dress she’d taken from the girl—it fit well enough—and tucked her hair back, then slipped out of the laundry rooms as a faceless one of many.AKILINA PANKEJEFF, DVORYANIN12 January 1588 LutetiaAkilina descends into the dungeons with her mouth pursed distastefully; it isn’t that she fails to understand the necessity of such places, or, indeed, that she’s above making use of them [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]