She stood and stretched, the white silk of her gown fluttering soft as butterfly wings around her legs. The room was somehow both exotic and comforting; the feel of Cadeyrn’s careful, thoughtful courtesy was in every line of the furniture, every drape of fabric. A dark wooden wardrobe stood to one side, and she opened it to find her own clothes neatly folded and cleaned. Magic, she thought with a smile. More clothes hung on padded hangers: a fairy tale gown of deep blue velvet and silk, several dresses that were slightly less ornate, though no less beautiful, some silk blouses and shirts in white, cream, and deep jewel tones, some trousers of a thick fabric she thought might be for riding, and others. Leather boots and pearled slippers sat along the bottom.
Did Cadeyrn want her to wear these clothes? Hannah let her fingers run down the velvet of a violet gown, cut in at the waist then flaring softly outward. She pulled out the dress and held it up, finding a mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door.
The color made the alabaster of her skin nearly glow, the dark brown of her hair shining against the soft fabric. I look like a princess. She blinked and put the dress away. It wouldn’t be right to wear the dress; it wasn’t hers, even if it fit. She dressed in her own clothes and brushed her hair with an ivory-handled brush she found in a drawer inside the wardrobe.
She opened her door to peer out into the hall. The hall was floored in dove-gray stone, slightly worn in the center as if feet had trod the stone for hundreds of years. Cadeyrn’s room was just next to hers, his door forming the end of the hallway. The other end disappeared down a stairwell.
She hesitated, then put her ear to Cadeyrn’s door. Was he awake? Was he well, after what had happened the day before?
After she had finished the gingerbread house, he had showed her to her room and bid her good evening. He’d bent to brush his lips against her knuckles, his lips almost feverishly hot.
Hannah had lain awake for hours, but when she finally slept, it had been without dreams.
She heard nothing from Cadeyrn’s room, so she knocked quietly.
Silence, then a muffled thump. She frowned, trying to interpret the sound.
Hannah had her hand raised to knock again when the door opened.
“Good morning.” Cadeyrn smiled. “Did you rest well?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He wore a new shirt of deep blue, crisp and immaculate, tucked into those slim breeches. The color made his eyes glitter like sapphires against his pearl-white skin. His boots were the same ones he had worn previously. His hair was wilder than she had seen it before, and she wondered whether it was styled that way on purpose, or whether it was simply disheveled from sleep.
“Would you dine with me?” He opened the door wider and gestured toward a small table by the window.
He held her chair out for her and then sat across from her. “What would you like to eat?” he asked, that faint accent almost imperceptibly stronger.
“Whatever you prefer. I’m not picky,” Hannah replied.
Cadeyrn’s lips rose in a subtle, wry smile, and he seemed to consider a moment before nodding. Plates appeared in front of them, holding small servings of gnocchi drizzled with pesto atop an artistic arrangement of mushrooms, petite squares of cheese covered in caramelized onions and peppers nestled beside exotic greens, salmon filets crusted with walnuts and brown sugar, raspberries covered in rich cream, and several more exquisitely prepared dishes.
Hannah’s eyes widened. “This looks fancy.”
“I thought you might be hungry, since I forgot to feed you a real meal last night. I hope you’ll forgive me for that.” His eyes were unexpectedly solemn, as if he actually doubted that Hannah would nod.
As before, he waited for her to begin before he took a bite.
“This is delicious!” Hannah said.
“Good.” Cadeyrn smiled, his eyes sparkling.
They ate in silence for several minutes. Hannah wondered what to say, then wondered whether he was uncomfortable in the silence or whether he thought it was peaceful. She glanced up to see Cadeyrn put his fork down a little clumsily. He took a deep breath through his nose, his gloved hand clenching the side of the table.
Cadeyrn was breathing too quickly, his eyes half-closed. “A passing dizziness. That’s all.” He turned his chair to the side and rested his elbows on his knees, letting his head hang down. His shirt stretched tight across his shoulders, outlining lean, hard muscles.
Without thought, Hannah knelt on the floor beside him. His breaths were ragged, a little catch in each inhalation. His right hand clenched and relaxed, then clenched again, as if he’d forgotten to pretend that he was fine.
“Are you in pain?” she whispered.
“Not exactly,” he gasped.
Hannah bit her lip as she watched him breathe, studying the still-dark shadows beneath his eyes, the tightness of his thin lips.
After some moments, the struggle seemed to fade, and his tense shoulders relaxed a little. He seemed to sag in his chair. He muttered something unintelligible.
“What was that?” Hannah asked, her voice as gentle as she could make it.
Cadeyrn drew back into himself, a little breathless but fully composed. “I beg your pardon.” He straightened, pulling his dignity around him like a cloak.
Hannah straightened as well, though she remained kneeling. “What’s wrong, Cadeyrn? Please tell me.”
“Repercussions.” He raised one eyebrow at her, his expression somehow both mocking and kind. “Consequences. Not entirely expected, but in retrospect I should have known.”
“It’s because of me?” Unexpected tears filled her eyes.
Faster than thought, he pulled her to her feet, his eyes blazing. “It is because of what I did. I had a choice, and I made it willingly, for honor and love and hope. I don’t regret it, and neither should you.” He stopped, his gaze holding hers. His nostrils flared slightly as he inhaled and exhaled, keeping the rhythm steady with iron control.
Hannah was caught by his magnificent beauty, the brilliance of his eyes, and the intensity of his voice.
Then he turned his head, his attention caught by a tiny sound at the door. He flicked a finger and the door opened.
A tiny yellow bird flew across the room and landed on Cadeyrn’s gracefully outstretched hand. It chattered at him.
“Tell him, with all due respect, that I will be down momentarily.”
The bird shot across the room and disappeared down the hallway.
Cadeyrn’s blue eyes focused on Hannah. “Your pardon. I have a distinguished guest I must receive.”
Hannah glanced at the table. “I’m full enough. Should I come with you, or do you want me to wait here?” She frowned a little worriedly, studying his face.
The cool winter light caught the dull purple-grey undertone of his skin, his pallor highlighted by the deep navy of his shirt. He blinked, as if surprised by the thought. “Would you wish to come?”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
He tilted his head, his gaze sharp on her face, then the corners of his mouth quirked upward. “I would be honored if you would accompany me.” He offered her his arm.
She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, feeling her face heat. Her fingers rested lightly on the hollow at the bottom of his bicep, fine cords of tendons beneath his skin. He’s so thin and hard. I wonder what his life is really like. There is so much I cannot imagine, and so much he hasn’t said.
Cadeyrn strode toward the door, leading her down a long hallway with a bare stone floor, then down a wide, curving staircase. On the last step he stumbled, catching himself with one hand against the wall, gloved fingers flat against the stone.
“Are you all right?”
“A moment, please,” he breathed.
Hannah hesitated, then, wondering at her own courage, slipped an arm around his waist. The smooth, pale skin of his throat moved as he swallowed, and she blushed as she felt the warmth of his skin beneath the fabric of his shirt.
He straightened, and she shifted away, letting her arm fall.
Cadeyrn continued a short way, stopping before a heavy wooden door. He closed his eyes and raised his chin, controlled his breathing, then opened the door and strode in.
Hannah followed, feeling the power swirling in his wake. The door had opened into a large room, the floor and walls of white marble, the ceiling vaulted far overhead. Long, thin tapestries lined the walls, the detail far too intricate to be deciphered from dozens of feet away. The room reminded Hannah of a small cathedral, or a large chapel, though none of the tapestries or imagery was especially religious. Perhaps it was only the finely wrought marble columns, or the magnificent ribs of the vaulted ceiling. At the end of the room to Hannah’s left was a low dias on which sat a throne. This throne, unlike the one in the lower throne room she had seen before, was made of white marble and covered in intricate gold and silver inlay, broad whorls surrounding smaller flowers and leaves.
Cadeyrn stood some distance in front of the throne facing Comonoc, the centaur king.
Cadeyrn’s drawings had been accurate in every detail save one; Hannah had not realized how very big Comonoc was. The drawings had shown that his equine body was heavily proportioned, more like a draft horse than a thoroughbred. But she had not understood from the pictures that his withers were easily seven feet above the ground, and his human shoulders were just as broad, perhaps broader, than his equine body. His massive biceps were each larger than her waist. The bow slung across his heavily-muscled shoulders must have been seven feet long.
Comonoc bowed deeply, his human body and equine legs more graceful than Hannah would have imagined possible. His voice rumbled. Hannah didn’t understand his words, but she understood the respect in them.
Cadeyrn answered him, then said, “Let us converse in English, if you please. I have a guest.” He motioned toward Hannah.
The centaur turned toward her, and Hannah took an involuntary step backward. He tilted his head, studying her, then turned back to Cadeyrn.
“Your Majesty,” Comonoc said, “Am I to understand that this human child is the cause of your… precipitous action last even?”
Cadeyrn’s lips rose in a thin smile. “Do you think I am so easily unseated? Do not fear. I am already recovering.”
Comonoc took a step closer, looming far above Cadeyrn’s slight form. He leaned forward slightly, as if he meant to have a staring contest with the Fae monarch. A tense moment passed. Then Cadeyrn swayed; he would have fallen but Comonoc’s great hands caught him around the shoulders.
Comonoc held him on his feet, the centaur’s lips curled in anger and worry. Hannah’s heart constricted at the sight Cadeyrn’s pale face, his eyelids closed, flopped over Comonoc’s wrist.
“What can I do?” she whispered.
The centaur king rumbled, “I think you’ve done quite enough. His strength is a thousand times that of mine; normally that slight nudge I gave him would no more have swayed him than you could blow over a mountain.”
Cadeyrn blinked and straightened, shrugging his shoulders out of Comonoc’s grasp with firm courtesy. “You’ve made your point, Comonoc.” He was a little breathless, and despite his insistence at standing on his own, he seemed to waver again.
“Your pardon, Your Majesty.” Comonoc bowed again. “I would not have been so discourteous if I were not so concerned. My people felt the concussion of your deed across our lands.”
Cadeyrn’s eyes widened. “You felt it even there?”
Comonoc grunted; the stone beneath Hannah’s feet trembled. “No one but you, Your Majesty, would have attempted such a feat, and if they did, they would not have lived to lament their failure.”
Cadeyrn closed his eyes and swallowed, as if forcing back dizziness.
Comonoc sighed heavily. “Sit, Your Majesty. I do not wish to see you fall.”
“I’m fine,” Cadeyrn murmured. He looked anything but fine, his lips a bloodless white.
The centaur king drew back, his nostrils flaring, though Hannah wasn’t sure if he was angry or merely worried. “I came not only to give you my respect and honor, and to assure myself that you were yet alive, but also to stand by you. For behind me rides Einion.”
If Hannah had not been looking so closely, she would have missed the bleak expression that flickered over Cadeyrn’s face, instantly replaced by a resigned sort of wry acceptance.
“He felt it too, did he?” Cadeyrn’s lips pressed together. “I had not expected that, but I did make the decision in haste.” He glanced up at Comonoc and smiled thinly. “And before you ask, I don’t regret it. I have had succession plans in place for many years.”