After nine days of travel, they entered the capital. The cobblestone streets that wound up the hill towards the palace were littered with droplets from the momentary rainfall that had gone as quickly as it came. The air that had been cool and brisk in March now hung with the musk of summer, even after the sun had retreated behind the horizon. Although she knew it was only the heat, Bingham found the grip of humidity around her cheeks threatening. Once she had regained her coherency, coming home –if it might even be called that- was the only thing she had feared.
Bingham’s strength had returned for the most part, although she was still sleeping whenever the troupe found a moment to stop. Her chest still stung with the memory of infection, and she checked it repeatedly for signs of recurrence. In her fever she had encountered delusions of conspiracy and deception. Since those feelings persisted, she couldn’t convince herself that the infection had completely vanished.
Usually the market was lined with people closing up shop this late in the evening, but tonight the streets were barren. Before any of them had time to wonder as to their whereabouts, a rhythmic echo began to bounce off the stone walls around them. At first it sounded like thousands of footsteps approaching, but with each building they passed a new element was added. A voice here, a clatter there.
“What’s the date?” Locan asked, opening up the question to them all.
“June seventeenth.” Jaeron was nodding when Locan looked back at him.
“Milady, I think we should get you into bed when we arrive. I’ll send for Devan as soon as you are secured in your chambers. He is receiving guests at the moment.” Locan looked as if he was trying to suppress the appearence of impatience.
Had she been raised in this culture, and outside her mother’s feeble influence, she might have argued. She wanted to know what they were hiding, of course. Four months without her husband had left her lonely and vulnerable, and he always seemed to know how to reassure her. It helped that he was as unsure as she was. But he possessed a hopeful quality that seemed to drive fear from her mind and push her to be better. The guardians were so certain at every turn; they were difficult to relate to at times.
Jaeron and Aria guided her through the main gates as Locan broke off towards the river to where the music originated. Passing through the archway she looked back and forth at the guards that had seemed so happy to see her when she first arrived. Now she realized that they had greeted her with indifferent stoicism, just as they had on that first day. Perhaps it was the nature of her arrival today that had unveiled her naïveté.
She was helped down from her stallion by several healers. The wrinkles split their hands like cracks in rock, and what would have been restlessness in a normal doctor seemed like serene reflection in their lusterless eyes. However, their grasp on her was more forgiving than that of the guardians’. She became drowsy even as they wrapped their arms around her. They smelled like warm soap and balm, their robes the purest white. They said nothing to her as they guided her through the colossal doors into the main hall and down the corridor to her bed. A fire smoldered in the corner and water lilies rested by her bedside in a small basin. The immense windows that lined one wall from corner to corner were punctuated with stone pillars balancing white wax candles on inner recesses in the rock.
Outside she could hear voices meant to be kept from her. Weeks ago they might have been slices of sound, but now she could hear every word.
“Just tell him his wife is here.” Bruce’s voice echoed against the tiles.
“It’s rude to interrupt them. Besides, what do you think their reaction will be when he comes to visit his wife considering the circumstances?” Jaeron was whispering more effectively, but still too loudly, “Bing was warned of the dangers and the complications of his life before her coronation. She will understand.”
“It’s not our place to make her understand-“
“Yes, it is.” Jaeron interrupted, “When the joint counselors demand discretion on matters of the state, it is our responsibility to facilitate that command. I shouldn’t have to tell you this…”
The conversation fell silent as the healers began setting up a canopy around the bed. Not wanting to wait for bad news, Bingham walked past them, towards the doorway. The two men stood, faces streaked with soot, glaring at each other. For a moment, she thought about the courage it must take to argue with anyone Bruce’s size.
“Is there something we need to discuss?” Bingham’s eyes darted from one to the next.
Bruce turned and walked in the opposite direction. Jaeron looked at the ground for a moment, and then straight at her. “You may not be able to see Devan tonight. He’s entertaining guests and they are… consuming his time. I’m sorry.”
She stared at him with bright green yes, “May not? Or will not?”
He looked past her shoulder, “Will not.”
Her forehead creased and she nodded slowly. Walking back to her room she chose a warmer robe to layer over the tulle gown she now wore and returned to Jaeron.
“Well,” she offered, “if I cannot see Devan tonight, might I go to the temple unaccompanied? I haven’t been alone for a long time. And I don’t think a prisoner’s cell counts.”
Jaeron studied her, surprised by her selflessness. “Of course, my Queen.”
A corner of her mouth tipped up, “Thank you. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
She walked by him and he could not meet her eye.
Just shows how little they know me.
Once she was out of Jaeron’s line of sight she scuttled down the hall towards the reception area.