Her body felt stiff, and her head ached as Mae opened her eyes. There was light coming through the windows of the room, but it was dim. She shifted and made a soft noise as she felt a pain coming from her shoulder. Glancing down at it, she saw it was wrapped in bandages under her loose night gown. Remembering the night before, she groaned as she moved to her back.
“Mae?” said a groggy voice next to her.
She looked to her side as Cade took her hand. His hair was ruffled on one side as though he had been laying on it, and his eyes looked tried.
“Did you stay here all night?” asked Mae.
He nodded. “I must have fallen asleep at some point after you woke up to take more of the pain medicine. How are you feeling?”
“Sore and tired, but not too bad. You must be exhausted.”
He shrugged.”If I had gone to my room, I doubt I would have slept at all. At least here, I could see that you were safe.”
“I’m in my bedroom in the palace, Cade. What could have happened to me?” she said with a little amusement.
“You were attacked within the palace walls. Nowhere is completely safe, it seems.”
Mae sat up a bit as Cade let go of her hand. He helped adjust her pillows. “What happened with Lady Bracken?”
“You shouldn’t worry about it now,” answered Cade. “You will need to rest for a few days and have little worries.”
“Besides my shoulder, I am fine. I am sure it will heal quickly. Now tell me what is going on with Lady Bracken?”
Cade looked away with a sigh. “She is dead.”
“Dead?” asked Mae in confusion. “How?”
“The guards who were watching over her says she broke out of her cell and attacked them. They say she took one of their swords and killed herself.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” said Mae.
“You heard her? She implied someone had told Henrietta to do as she did in the field.”
“You think someone had her killed?” asked Mae. “Who?”
“When Thad went to check on her, there was someone else down there besides the guards. It was the Highest One. He said he didn’t arrive until after Lady Bracken was dead, but I don’t know.”
“It would make sense that he wouldn’t want her to talk if he is involved. I told you he was meeting with Lord Bracken. I know he said it was just to get information on the man, but it didn’t sound like it to me.”
Cade nodded. “Thad is going to Lord Bracken today to see what he can find out. My father is willing to offer Lord Bracken safety and some freedom if he gives us information.”
“I hope Thad is careful.”
“Thad knows what he is doing, Mae. He can be a dangerous man when he wants to be.”
“I know it well,” said Mae as she leaned further into her pillows.
“You don’t need to be worried about this, not now.” He reached up and touched her cheek and then her forehead. “You will need your bandages changed soon, and then you must rest here for a little while. Your wound cannot get infected.”
“I will stay still and rest if you promise to let me know what you learn from Thad. Bring him in here when he gets back. At the very least, I want to say goodbye to him before he leaves.”
“Of course,” said Cade as the door opened.
Mrs. Wynn and Enid walked in, one carrying a tray with tea and a simple breakfast and the other a pile of cloths.
“You are awake, my lady,” said Enid. “How do you feel?”
“Sore, but not too bad. I am a little hungry,” said Mae eyeing the tray.
“You can eat soon, but first, we need to change your bandages,” said Mrs. Wynn. “Your highness, you will need to leave for this.”
“You should go rest,” said Mae. “Or at least cleanup and eat your own breakfast.”
Cade stood up. “I will go change and eat, but I will come back soon. Is there anything you wish for me to bring you?”
“I suppose a book would be nice if I feel like reading later. I have my elixir book here, but it is not always an entertaining read.”
“Any one in particular?” asked Cade.
“I would like you to choose something,” said Mae with a small smile.
He nodded. “I will do my best.” He picked up her hand and kissed it gently before leaning down and kissing her forehead as Mrs. Wynn and Enid looked away. He left as Enid and Mrs. Wynn came to the sides of the bed.
They changed her bandages, and it was an uncomfortable experience. Mrs. Wynn cleansed her wound and put some of the medicine the healer had left on it before Enid bound it with fresh bandages. Enid arranged her pillows so she could set up further and fixed her some tea. While Mae ate her breakfast, Enid combed out her hair and braided it.
She had two visitors soon after she finished her breakfast. First, the king came to see her.
“Oh my dear girl, I am glad to see you looking so well this morning,” said the king as he sat down. “I worried half the night about you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that this happened within the palace walls. I have already spoken to the captain of my guards this morning. He is having every inch of the walls inspected, and you are not to go anywhere without a guard watching over you.”
“That sounds rather restrictive,” said Mae.
“A part of this life, I am afraid,” said the king. “They will not bother you and keep far enough back, so you barely notice them, but you will have to let me have my way. I can’t let anything else happen to you. I already wrote your mother, telling her of your injury. I reassured her you would be well and that I would do everything to keep you safe from this moment forth.”
“You wrote my mother?” asked Mae.
“I have written your mother a few times,” said the king. “She has entrusted you to me, and I want her to know I take that trust seriously.”
Mae smiled and took his hand. “You are very good.”
He kissed her hand and shook his head. “Hardly, my dear. It is the least I can do.”
“When do you expect Lord Aimon to meet with you?” asked Mae.
The king raised his eyebrows. “I suppose Cade told you about what happened? I’m sure he also told you not to worry about it right now, but I can see that is impossible. I believe he is going to Lord Bracken as we speak. As soon as he knows something, he will come straight here.”
“Do you think the Highest One had her killed?” asked Mae, her voice low.
“It is suspicious. I have never really trusted the man, and I do not like you meeting with him. I should put a stop to it,” said the king.
“You should not,” said Mae. “It is the best way I can keep an eye on him and try to find out more of what he is planning on doing.” She looked away for a moment. “Perhaps, I could be more friendly with him. I could even move into the temple for a while, not because I do not wish to be here, but I could say I wish to focus on my gift for a time. It would be easier for me to find out what the Highest One may be up to. If he truly believes I am on his side, he may just tell me.”
“Absolutely not,” said the king with authority. “You will not do something so foolish and put yourself into danger. If that man gets any kind of real hold on you, he will not let go, not with your power. You will not stay in the temple any more than you already do, especially with your uncle leaving soon.”
“It was just a thought,” said Mae. “If he is involved with the Brackens, it means he has already tried to kill Cade and you. I want to protect you both.”
“We are not helpless, Mae. It is you who should be protected better. If you wish to still go to your weekly meetings with the Highest One, I will say nothing, but if he ever hurts your or threatens you, I will keep you from him.”
“I am afraid I must do as he wishes, my king. He could hurt my family.”
“We will find a way to protect them, Mae. Your uncle is going to them soon. I have also heard your people are not happy with the situation. I should not want unrest in my kingdom, but I cannot fault it if it is for the right reason. I only hope between Lord Aimon and your uncle; we can find a way to settle things without further deaths and suffering.”
“I do trust you, your majesty. I know you do not wish my people or anyone to suffer needlessly. I was so angry with you before I knew you. I thought you would be a king who sat on his throne, not caring about some people he never saw. I was wrong. It is not easy being in a position of power with so many depending on you.”
“It is not,” agreed the king. “I know many think ill of me and that I have not done enough to help our kingdom, and they may have a point. There was a time that I was too distracted by my grief and anger to do much of anything. I eventually came out of it for my people and Cade, but the damage had been done to Gelardia and my son. I am trying to fix some of it, so I do not leave such a burden on Cade.”
“I will do what I can to help you both,” said Mae.
“Does this mean you are settled in your position? I know Cade treated you very wrong for a while, but he knows better now. He does care for you, my dear.”
“I know he does,” said Mae. “I also know he carries much hurt and dread with him.”
“He thought if he could insulate himself by not caring for anyone, he could not be hurt further,” said the king. “He was determined to keep his heart walled off, but you broke through. He believed he could build up his barrier again, but he found it was impossible. You are too good to punish him for his past mistakes. I only hope you can learn to trust him.”
“I want to,” said Mae. “I never knew what to expect about my future. I thought my mother would marry me off to some quiet lord who lived out in the woods. I believed I would be happy with my lot if I could find a kind man who would respect me. I never thought I would get to experience the love I have seen between others such as my parents.”
“You are rather young to feel that way,” said the king with a little amusement.
“I am, but I feel older than I am. I have always felt weighed down in some way. I have not been unhappy, but I have felt as if my responsibilities to my family and my people filled my life completely. Then my father became ill and died, and I had to help my mother.”
“But now I hope you see that you were wrong,” said the king.
“I care greatly for Cade, and I believe I could easily fall in love with him if I let myself. There is just so much holding me back and not just because of his past actions.” She took a deep breath and grimaced as her shoulder had started to throb. “If he were not a prince, then maybe it would be easier, but he is. I do not want to be the cause of any disappointment or ridicule for him.”
“You could never,” said the king. “I know what was said to you last night, and it says more about the people who said it than you. They are never satisfied with anyone, Mae, not even themselves. If they can belittle others, it distracts them from their deficiencies. Do not let those petty, unhappy people dictate who you are or what you want.”
Mae nodded as she closed her eyes and shifted to try to get comfortable.
“I believe you should take something for your pain and try to rest,” said the king. “I need to be going. Please try not to worry too much at this time. Focus on healing.” He stood up and patted her hand. “Give Cade a chance as well. I know you have many doubts, but love can overcome just about anything.”
She laughed a little. “You are quite sentimental for a king.”
“You can attribute that to the time I had with my dear wife. Her love changed me and for the better. I have regrets, but I cannot regret the time I had with her. Rest well, my dear.”
Enid gave Mae some medicine, and she quickly fell asleep until the healer came to look over her shoulder. He thought it would heal well as long as no infection set in. She was not happy when he told her she needed to rest as much as possible, staying in bed or sitting quietly in a chair for a few days.
Lunch was brought in to her soon, and Cade and Thad came with it. Cade held in his hands a small book. He placed it on the table in front of him as he sat on the sofa where Mae had moved after the healer left. Thad sat in a nearby chair.
“How did your visit with Lord Bracken go this morning?” asked Mae as Cade handed her a plate of food.
“You don’t waste time, do you?” asked Thad as he poured a cup of wine.
“I am glad to see you, my lord, and am sad you are going away soon,” said Mae with a small smile. “I also thank you for all you did for me last evening. Now, can we discuss what you may have learned from your morning visit?”
Cade gave a short laugh as Thad shook his head before taking a sip of his wine. “I haven’t learned much yet except for what Lord Bracken wants in exchange for any information he will give me.”
“What does he want?” asked Mae. “The king offered him the ability to have his life back in the city, didn’t he?”
“He did, but that is not what the man wants,” said Thad. “He wants to be far away from Brighan and even Bevins. He said if he has anything to say, he definitely won’t tell me in the city.”
“So he must be scared and have information on someone of importance,” said Mae.
“I think we all know who his information is on,” said Cade. “The problem is if the man runs, the Highest One will know.”
“He believes he can use his wife’s death as an excuse to leave,” said Thad. “He wants to bury her at his estate in Bevins; from there, he expects me to find a way to let him escape. In truth, he wants me to make him disappear.”
“What do you mean to disappear?” asked Mae.
“He wants it to seem as if he is dead,” said Cade. “That is the only way he will feel he has any chance.”
“Could you do it?” asked Mae.
“Probably,” said Thad. “Or I could just have him tell me what he has to say and actually kill him.”
“I am sure he will have someone watching with him,” said the prince. “He has his own allies.”
Thad nodded. “So, I will leave it up to the king. If he wishes to let the man go and can arrange it, I will meet with him out in Bevins and find a way to gain him his safety. I will forward the information here.”
“You could just find out what we already believe we know,” said Mae. “And what good will it do? We cannot displace the Highest One with one man’s testimony, especially one who wished to kill the king and prince.”
“He implies he has others to implicate. It could give us someplace to start,” said Thad. “I will await the decision from my king, but I must be going tomorrow morning to see to other things.”
“How long will you be gone?” asked Mae.
“Hopefully no more than a month,” said Thad. “I know you plan two plan to leave if it can be arranged. I would like to be back before then.”
“I will miss you, my lord,” said Mae.
“I am sure you will be much too preoccupied here. I understand your birthday will be soon. I hate that I will be gone.”
“It is just a day like any other,” said Mae.
“It will not be,” said Cade. “My father asked the healer if you will be well enough by then for a ball, and he said you should be. Therefore my father is sending out invitations today.”
“A ball?” asked Mae with surprise. “Just because it is my birthday?”
“You are coming of age,” said Thad. “It is expected by the people and the High Council.”
Mae sat back. “Another step closer to our wedding, I suppose.”
Cade nodded. “Most queens in the past have married at the age of maturity.”
Mae looked away as her heart beat a little faster. She rubbed near her shoulder as it started to sting. Cade took her hand. “You will not be pressured into anything you do not wish for, Mae. We can stall for a bit. We have the trip out in the kingdom, and then I can say I wish to wait until my birthday or until your mother can be here. I will not rush you.”
She squeezed his hand. “I believe you. It is just much to think about.”
“I should go,” said Thad as he stood. Mae stood up with Cade’s help. “Do not do anything foolish, Mae. I will get the information we need, and we can act on it then. You do not need to put yourself in harm’s way. I know you plan to keep meeting with the Highest One, but keep him at arm’s length.”
“I can’t promise I will not try to pry a bit, Thad, but I will be careful. I have plenty I need to keep safe.”
He put his hand on her good shoulder. “Let others take care of you as well.” He glanced down at the prince before leaning forward and whispering, “Especially Cade. Give him a chance.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “You all think me so closed-minded.” Thad patted her shoulder before she leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Safe travels.”
Cade offered his hand, and Thad took it. “Keep safe, and contact us when you can.”
“Of course, your highness. Take care of business here. I expect to hear a good report when I return.”
As he walked out the door, Mae sat back down with Cade. She finished her lunch, looking at the book on the table. “What did you bring me?”
Cade glanced down at the small book. “I believe you prefer books on kingdom history, but I thought with you not feeling well, you might enjoy something a little lighter.” He grabbed the book and handed it to her.
She opened it to find it looked to be a book read many times. The edges of the cover were fraying, and the pages were bent as though they had been turned many times. She looked at the title and then riffled through the pages. “Is this a novel?” She read the title out loud as he nodded. “The Furthest Away. I don’t think I have read this.” She flipped through it.
“I have read it many times. It is a simple book.”
Mae looked up. “What is it about?”
“A young man who falls in love with a foreign princess at a festival. It is the story about how they both try to find a way to reunite.”
“A love story,” said Mae with a laugh. “You have read this many times?”
He colored a little. “It was my mother’s favorite book. She would read it out loud at times when I was playing in the room she was in.”
Mae ran her hands over the cover. “Oh, I am sorry, Cade. I didn’t mean to belittle it.”
“I know it seems unthinkable that I would enjoy reading something like this, but my life has always been full of serious things. A small charming story about lost and found love is what I crave to get out of my head sometimes. It is one of many novels I keep in rotation.”
“So I have finally discovered your favorite type of book,” said Mae with a smile.
He nodded. “You know me very well, now, better than almost anyone. I have never told anyone but you about this.”
She slowly moved a little closer to him and handed him the book. “Would you read a bit of it for me? I find that my eyes are a little too tired to do it myself.”
He nodded and opened the book while scooting close to her. He was a good reader, his voice engaging, making subtle changes for each character. Mae became engrossed in the story, through her eyes grew heavy. Before long, she rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes.