On the crisp white paper of the after action report it all looks very simple.
They were in the kitchens when the fighting broke out, the paper says. They did not go to investigate. Jasper got the queen—they did not know then that she was the queen, and maybe she wasn’t yet, maybe one of the 21 relatives in line ahead of her was gasping his or her last in a parlor, a bedroom, a banquet hall somewhere—to the stables. He pulled her onto a horse and they rode (for nearly two straight days with hardly any rest) to Lord Carlisle’s country estate, because Jasper trusted no one else with the queen’s—by the time they arrived she was queen, though they still didn’t know it—safety.
That’s what it says.
“Yes. It’s accurate,” says Jasper, pushing the paper away. The stack beneath it is facts and figures, neat lists of the dead.
Across the desk, Carlisle nods, accepting. He knows Jasper as a young man of few words, strong and silent, aware of his place, everything a bodyguard ought to be. If Carlisle wants the rest of the story, he will have to ask Her Ladyship—majesty. He will have to ask Her Majesty.
Carlisle shuffles the papers back into order, sets the stack beside another carefully clipped stack—one of the other massacres.
“Well then,” he says. “I regret that I can’t give you a copy of the report,” he adds, sounding as though he means it, “but it’s kept right here, and you’re welcome to come and read it at any time.”
Jasper regards him carefully. His earnest, handsome face is drawn, exhausted. It must be hard for such a gentle person to spend all day reading over these accounts, piecing bloody anecdotes into their macabre sequence.
Carlisle scrubs a weary hand over his forehead. “Do you have any questions of your own? Off the record,” he adds, dismissing the scribe in the corner with a gesture. The door swings shut.
Jasper does have a question. No, that’s not right. The question has him. He can feel it, like a great fist squeezing his chest. It gnaws at the inside of his mind: Ask. Ask. The words are a bitter weight on the tip of his tongue.
But to ask would be to admit. And as long as he doesn’t know the answer, he can imagine away his guilt. To be blameless is a fragile hope, a house of cards he’s been shielding from every tremor, every breeze. With the idea of an answer echoing in his mind, all the awful possibilities open like a chasm beneath his feet.
No. It’s safer not to know. He won’t ask.
When no questions are forthcoming, Carlisle shifts in his chair.
“Jasper, if I may…” he relaxes his rigid posture and rests his chin on his knitted-together fingers, seeming to shed the persona of Duke as he fixes Jasper with a sincere look. “Why did you bring her to me?”
Jasper considers his answer. “I trusted you not to harm her.”
In point of fact, Jasper hadn’t. As a rule, he trusts no one. But he’d had to pick someone, and Carlisle was the best choice. His kindness comes from somewhere intrinsic, genuine. Jasper had gambled that even if faithful, honorable Carlisle was somehow colluding with the enemy, he could never bring himself to harm a teenaged girl.
And failing that, Jasper knew the layout of Carlisle’s estate. He knew how many guards there were and where they were stationed. He knew he could overpower Carlisle if he had to.
He’s glad he didn’t have to.
Carlisle nods, accepting the answer, and leans back in his chair.
“Is there anything else?” Jasper asks.
There is, of course. The question he won’t ask is a crawling itch beneath his skin.
Carlisle shakes his head. “You’re free to leave. I’m sure Her Majesty will be missing you by now.”
Unlikely. But Jasper doesn’t say so out loud. He’s very good at keeping his thoughts to himself.