Under the cover of night, Gil crept through the sliver of unbarred window, into the queen’s private chambers. Almost as nerve-wracking as his first such visit, though separated by years, his purpose this time was far less pleasant. The giddiness he’d held in his heart then, was a far distant memory, despite many the warm nights after, spent in her bed. No, his gut felt cold, fearing for her, for what the next day could bring.
The warmest thing in his current purview, was the glow of lamplight from under the door leading to the next room.
Waiting for word, preparing for her sister’s inevitable attempt to usurp her, she would be awake.
After what he’d seen in the city, Gil didn’t think he’d make it this far unchallenged. He’d been forced to alter his usual route slightly, to avoid the additional guard the queen had set. Once he reached the rooftops inside the main hold, though, he might as well have been invisible.
The well-oiled hinges to the closet door were silent, yet she looked up intently from her writing as he entered. Sensing some stirring of the air or change of light, or simply on edge, she sent her maid away. The woman nodded, carrying with her a stack of of neatly folded and sealed letters in her hands.
Queen Laure had many friends yet. Which of their number would help, remained to be seen.
Narrowing her eyes at him as he slipped from shadow, into the flicker of lamplight, he got a lash of her anger and frustration. For a moment he couldn’t form words, fear gripping him coldly. His work for her demanded absolute trust. If she thought he could turn on her now...
Gil went down on one knee in front of the queen. He did not want to disappoint her. Less, he did not want to cause her pain.
“Speak, Gil. Though I suppose I shall regret asking.” She sounded tired; he wanted dearly for her call him over, that he could embrace her. This was not the time for such things, however.
“Your sister, Your Highness.”
“She is in the city then?”
“Yes. I’m afraid I must report that she killed Commander Asmin and soon after, raised the Flohr banner on the Gate.” He bit his tongue, before he could beg her to come away with him. His place was not to tell his queen how to proceed.
The queen dropped her pen, and stood up. “How could she? Asmin taught her the sword!”
Gil watched her begin to pace, and continued his report. “She made no show of it. Other than the banner. Her forces are halfway through the Lower Circle. The west gate is breached, the distillery is ablaze, and part of Southmarket. Our soldiers are split between controlling the blaze and trying to hold Midtown without the Commander.” The fires weren’t visible from the palace, but the smell of acrid smoke still hung in his nose and clung to his garments.
“Where is Asmin’s Second?”
“No one knows. I only had time to speak to Lieutenant Dunla, and she’s spitting mad and claiming treachery. I don’t know if I believe that. I haven’t caught any whispers of Bernard being anything but faithful.”
“He could be dead, too.”
“Or captured.” He disliked how dismal her outlook had become, but he could not blame her for being realistic.
“But more likely dead. My sister has never been known for her gentle nature.”
“The blood of Meris the Bold runs in you both, after all, Your Highness.”
She looked up sharply at his cheekiness. “And likely half the country, my love. She was prolific.”
“I can claim no such heritage.” Born to a foreign diplomat and his mistress, Gil wasn’t of local stock. Not that the queen seemed to mind.
“You make up for it in other ways,” she said, giving him the first smile he’d seen from her in days.
“Little help it is to you now.”
“You’ve bought me time, and as ever, knowledge.” Queen Laure approached him, still smiling slightly.
A flicker of affection in her gaze was all it took to set his heart beating faster; she looked at him with such fondness, he already ached with desire. He bit his lip, and looked away.
There was so much still to account for, and she had to know. It was his job to make certain she did. “We still don’t know how she managed to bring such a force through the In-Between without any of your mages picking up upon it.”
“I have my suspicions. Do not despair. My sister has shown her hand, finally, and I have no choice but to retaliate. I will make her regret this, and I will need your help to do it.”
He nodded solemnly, trying to keep his face stony and intent. “Your Highness, if I may assist you in any way.”
"You may indeed."
Gil watched worriedly, as the queen removed a pair of her jeweled earrings, gold, studded with diamonds and emeralds and heavy with magic. With care, she folded them into a parchment lined with a message he could not make out, and handed it to him.
“Do a circuit of the city, and find out what else you can, then meet me at the tenth bell at the stables behind the Bridgemont taphouse. And…”
“And?” The taphouse she named was well outside of the walls. His stomach sank precipitously, knowing what she must be preparing herself for. What he had to prepare himself for. It wasn’t guaranteed she’d be able to escape the city, if she survived at all.
“If I do not come in a reasonable amount of time, take that parcel to Audre Demell with all haste. He will know what to do.”
Gil knew that having withdrawn from court life, Lord Demell kept to an estate two days ride from the city - a place well away from the troubles here.
“I fear we may have differing ideas of what constitutes reasonable, Your Highness.” Indeed, if he waited for her too long, he might as well not leave at all and make to look for her on his own.
“Very well, wait an hour, then go. I cannot trust anyone else with this, Gil. I am sorry.” Her voice sounded strained.
“I understand.” He choked back the other words he wanted to say. For her to let him sweep her out of the city at his side, to abandon her responsibilities, and let her sister have it all.
The queen leaned down and pressed a swift kiss to his cheek, and just as quickly turned away.
She never seemed able to watch him depart.
Rising to his feet, certain he would regret leaving her behind, Gil disappeared into the shadows.