"Droushie? Droushie, Steggie woke up and can't get back to sleep."
Hyper-alert, Drou left the doorway, consciously gentling her movements as she approached the boy's low bed.
"It's very late," she said quietly. "Steggie needs his sleep, or he'll be too tired to go out to play in the snow tomorrow."
Gregor nodded solemnly, clutching the toy to him. "I told him he should go to sleep. But his ears won't let him."
It wasn't hard to decipher that. Drou had been listening with all her might for sounds from further down the corridor too. Tomorrow the Prince would leave with the fleet for Escobar, and Ezar had granted him permission to speak to his wife before he went. And it was too quiet. Negri was monitoring them personally, and Drou had faith in Negri, but it was her job to defend the Princess, and she hated to abandon her post. But tonight, she was waiting with Gregor.
How Gregor had picked up what was going on, she didn't know. The Prince had come in to say good-night to him, quickly and formally, with Drou and Kareen and two of Ezar's Armsmen in the room, and Gregor had sat still and quiet for it, his eyes flickering between his parents in childish confusion. Then Drou had tucked him in properly and waited for him to fall asleep, then gone to keep watch by the door.
She studied the small boy. "Perhaps Steggie should come here for a hug," she said. She pulled back the blankets and sat on the side of the bed, one knee up on the mattress, leaning against the cushioned headboard. Gregor instantly jumped into her lap, still holding his toy tightly. Drou held him for a minute, then pulled the blanket over them all, running her hand through Gregor's hair and easing him down onto the bed.
"Do you think Steggie might go to sleep if I sing him a lullaby?"
Gregor nodded, then made Steggie's head nod too. Drou smiled.
She chose a long one, an old Russian song about a boy who built a ship to sail to the moon, and by the time she was in the middle of the fourth verse, Gregor's eyes were closing, and by the sixth, his breathing was slow and steady. She sang all the way to the end anyway, the old familiar words soothing her as much as they had Gregor, and when she came to the end, she was almost relaxed, Gregor a warm limp weight against her knee. She tucked the blankets more closely around him and continued her vigil.
She'd had time to run through the lullaby in her head three times more before she heard footsteps in the passage. She didn't tense, lest she disturb Gregor, but her alertness sharpened until she recognised the step. Princess Kareen came to the door, stood outside it for a while, then opened it. Drou turned to look at her, and slowly Kareen walked over to the bed. Even in the dim glow of Gregor's night-light, Drou could see that she was pale and starting to shake with reaction. She knew Kareen would have been a marble statue of a princess through her interview with Serg, showing nothing, no weaknesses for him to attack. Now it was over. Drou didn't reach out to her; Kareen didn't like to be touched unexpectedly.
Kareen looked down at them both. "That looks cosy," she murmured. "Is he all right?"
"He was up a little while ago," Drou said, equally quietly. "But he went back to sleep. He's fine, milady."
"Good," Kareen said. She bent to kiss Gregor on the cheek, then sighed and lowered herself to the floor, sitting with her head resting against the side of the bed. "It's over," she said. "All over now."
"Is there anything I can get you, milady?" Drou asked. Kareen shook her head, then leaned sideways so that her head was resting against Drou's leg. Drou could feel her still trembling. Slowly and carefully, she slid off the bed, taking the folded blanket from the foot as she did so, sitting down on the carpet with Kareen. Kareen did not look at her, but leaned back, and Drou wrapped her in the blanket and held her, much as she'd held Gregor.
"He just talked," she whispered. "Just ... talked. That's all." She rested her head against Drou's shoulder, and after a while she said, "He told me we would have more children when he returned, when I was his Empress."
Drou tightened her hold on Kareen and stroked her hair. They rarely spoke of what would happen after Ezar died, when Drou would be all Kareen had for protection against an Emperor and all his might, but they both feared it.
"Well, he is going to the war," Drou dared to say. Kareen sighed.
"If Vidal was going, perhaps we might have arranged ... but whenever I tried to get near Rulf Vorhalas, he backed off. He's a good man, but not political enough. No, Drou," she said as Drou made to speak. "Don't try to give me hope. Not right now."
Indeed, there was not much to hope for. Soldiers died in war; Admirals far more rarely. Drou sat silently holding Kareen, thinking of her own private final plan, when they came to the end of all hope. She would die for assassinating the Emperor, but it would be worth the price. If only she could find a way to take Vorrutyer at the same time...
"Droushie?" came a small voice from the bed. Drou jumped, then reached up and touched the boy's head.
"It's all right, Gregor, I'm here. Now go back to sleep." She took a breath and began the lullaby again. When Gregor gave a soft snore, she felt Kareen start to relax, the tension and the terror finally draining away from her. She sang to the end again, and Kareen yawned.
"I think I could sleep now too," she said, though she made no effort to move. She yawned again, shifting unconsciously to make herself more comfortable, tucking her head down in the hollow of Drou's shoulder, then closed her eyes. "Thank you, Drou," she mumbled.
Drou felt her breathing slow and steady, and in a few minutes she too was asleep. As slowly and carefully as she could, she lifted the Princess into her arms and carried her through the door that connected Gregor's room to her suite. Kareen stirred as Drou laid her on the bed, blinked up at her, smiled with startling openness and closed her eyes again, her face as peaceful and untroubled in sleep as the child's. Drou looked down at her and felt near to tears, knowing how helpless she was to preserve this peace.
But what she could do, she would, to the last drop of her blood. The Prince was still in the Residence, so she went out to the corridor and took up a station between the two bedroom doors, silent and watchful, and as she watched, the old lullaby tune echoed through her head.