Thunder rolled as late autumn winds buffeted the University President’s home, raking through half-empty branches and papering the bricks with the sodden remains of fallen leaves. Fat raindrops lashed the window panes in fierce waves, carrying in their biting coolness the threat of sleet. Yet, even this roiling storm paled in comparison to the maelstrom within Charis’ bedroom.
Clothing draped from every free surface, hanging haphazardly from door knobs and bedposts alike. Dresser drawers sat partially opened, the articles inside reduced to disarrayed piles that only vaguely resembled the neat stacks they had been merely an hour ago. The closet had fared no better either, having been emptied of most of its contents. Empty hangers dotted the floor like a trail of breadcrumbs leading toward Charis’ bed.
And in the eye of the garment-fueled tempest stood Charis with her hands on her hips. She stared down in fixed concentration at the open suitcase in front of her. “Nightgown, socks, underwear…toothbrush…” She ticked off the items on her fingers as she ran through her mental packing list for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Oh, Charis! Of all things, how could you forget your toothbrush?” she exclaimed, scolding herself out loud before darting into the adjoining bathroom. In her wake, a discarded blouse slipped from the back of the desk chair and slumped, unnoticed, to the floor in a rumpled heap.
She returned a moment later and slid the brush, along with a small jar of tooth powder, into the pocket within the suitcase’s inner lining. Instead of withdrawing her hand, she reached a bit deeper to feel for a small bundle that was already carefully nestled in the lining and patted it for reassurance. Nerissa’s set of crystal chimes, once again safely wrapped within Amon’s handkerchief, had been the very first thing she packed. Tucked snugly in beside that was a letter from Nerissa herself—the very impetus for her flurried packing.
“What is going on in here?”
Startled, Charis yanked her hand back as if the letter were a hot coal, her finger grazing the paper’s edge in the process. With a hiss, she pressed her finger to her mouth and whirled around to see Amon standing in the doorway. Locks of his dark hair jutted out at odd angles, and water dripped from the sodden cuffs of his pants to collect on the floor around socked feet.
She pulled her finger away from her lips and peered at him curiously. Normally, aside from the one rogue lock of hair that tended to stray across his brow, Amon’s appearance was absolutely impeccable. The shock of seeing him in such an uncharacteristically bedraggled state banished all of Charis’ initial vexation at being caught off guard. “How in the world did you become so disheveled?” she asked, blurting out the first thing that came to her mind.
“An umbrella can only do so much to keep the wind and rain at bay,” he answered, running his fingers through his hair in a futile attempt to straighten it. “Perhaps you’ve been too busy brewing a storm of your own to notice the one raging outside?”
Charis glanced out the window and then around the room before turning back to Amon with her chin lifted defiantly. She had been so caught up in the urgency of packing that she truly hadn’t noticed the weather outside, but she wasn’t willing to admit that. Another clap of thunder echoed overhead. “How could I not notice that?”
In spite of her petulance, Amon smiled with amusement. “Then I’ll repeat my original question. What is going on in here?”
“I’m packing,” Charis replied. The answer came out more bluntly than she intended as she forced herself to look away from his dimpled grin. There was another reason for her terseness, too. Although the two of them may have come to an understanding about his allegiance, she still didn’t want to risk having him figure out Nerissa’s secret. Charis knew she was a terrible liar, so the less she said, the better.
“I can see that you are packing,” Amon said archly. “Where are you going that requires you to pack in such a hurry?”
The tension in Charis’ shoulders eased a little. That, at least, was an easy enough question to answer. She had already rehearsed her cover story numerous times since it was the same one she intended to give her father when he asked. “I’m enjoying the start of semester break by going to Maze with some friends for the Festival of Flames.”
“That’s an excellent idea! While the festivities here in Niamh are great, they are nothing compared to those in my hometown.”
Charis frowned and shook her head. “Your hometown? I said I was going to Maze, not Nyx.”
“Surely you’re familiar enough with geography to know that the two cities would touch, were it not for the Brochan River between them.”
“They still aren’t the same city.”
The doorframe emitted a creak as Amon leaned against it. “Indeed, they aren’t. But my mother and father were so busy at court that I spent more time with my paternal grandparents in Maze than I did in the capital. I could recommend a few places for you to visit while you’re in the city, if you like. What inn do you plan to stay at?”
Charis pressed her injured finger to her lips again and sucked on the cut to buy time while she thought of an answer. “It hasn’t been decided yet, actually,” she said, choosing her words carefully. That was close to the truth. Her rendezvous with the Ohanzee was to take place at the festival itself, so Nerissa hadn’t mentioned where the Ohanzee planned to stay, nor had she suggested any place to Charis.
Amon’s forehead creased, and he ran his fingers through his hair again. “With the number of people coming to the city for the festival, it will be difficult—perhaps impossible—to find a room if you haven’t already reserved one.”
“Oh dear” was all Charis could manage to say. Nerissa, why did you wait until the last minute to ask me to meet with you? she thought, adding a silent curse afterward. She hadn’t considered the possibility that she might not be able to find an inn to stay at. Unable to hide her dismay, she turned away and fussed with the clothing inside the suitcase.
Amon picked up on her reaction nevertheless. For a moment, the only sounds in the room were his footsteps, muted to a series of dull thumps by the dense rug, and then yet another rumble of thunder rattled the window panes. Charis didn’t know what he intended to do, but she certainly didn’t expect to feel the warmth of his hands on her shoulders as he squeezed them reassuringly.
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing worth getting upset about. I have connections to several of the innkeepers in the city, and I don’t mind asking a favor for your sake,” he said, his voice a soothing drawl next to her ear. “I’m sure if I put in a word, one of them will have an opening. How many rooms do you need?”
The knot of anxiety that had formed in the pit of Charis’ stomach burst into a swarm of butterflies. Whether they were spurred to life by relief or by the sound of his voice, she did not know. Perhaps it was both. “I’ll only need one room,” she said, and as soon as the words came out, she regretted them. Grimacing, she hoped against hope that he didn’t catch on to her slip.
But, of course, he did. “One room? You said that you were going with friends.”
Charis’ mind raced to think up a plausible explanation for her misstep. Somehow—miraculously—one came to her. “Not everyone has unlimited funds at their disposal like you do. We were planning to share a room to cut down on costs.”
Amon released his grip on her arms and stepped away. “Are these ‘friends’ you’re going with the same ones you loaned the book to?”
“Which book are you referring to?” she asked, feigning confusion. When she turned back to face him, he was sitting astride in her desk chair with his chin resting on one fist and his lips curled upward, looking every bit like the proverbial cat that had caught the canary.
“I’m hurt, Charis. I thought we had come to an understanding,” Amon said.
Charis paused, remembering all the times in the past Nerissa had wheedled things out of her by using a similar tactic. She studied his expression for any sign that he was manipulating her emotions and found none. He had already figured out that she was meeting with the Ohanzee. What harm was there in conceding that much? They were on the same side, after all.
“Yes, I am meeting with the Ohanzee,” she finally admitted.
Amon dropped his hand from his chin and leaned forward eagerly. “So, they call themselves the Ohanzee, do they? Are they coming here to pick you up?”
Charis tilted her head, now genuinely confused by his reaction. “No, I’m meeting them in Maze. I am supposed to meet them at the festival on the fourth day of the celebrations.” The pink-feathered hat Nerissa had asked her to wear in order to identify herself to the other members of the Ohanzee was already tucked into a hat box beside the suitcase.
“Wait. So you’re planning to travel alone?”
“Is there a problem with that?”
“Yes, there’s a problem with that!” he declared. His tone made it clear that he felt the answer should have been obvious.
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
Amon set his jaw and huffed in frustration. “Niamh may have been safe enough in the past, but even here, there are those who take advantage of my uncle’s men being spread too thin to properly patrol the city. That was the very reason why the curfew was instituted in the first place. Believe it or not, Casimer was trying to keep people safe, not restrict their freedoms. And Maze, though affluent and prosperous, is also riddled with pickpockets and thieves looking to prey on the unsuspecting. They will be out in droves with the influx of visitors for the festival. I’m not even going to mention the fact that reports of banditry on the roads between cities are becoming more common every day.”
“You just did,” Charis muttered under her breath.
Amon arched one eyebrow, but he continued on without missing a beat. “I could not abide my conscience—or your father’s grief—if I allowed you to travel alone and some misfortune befell you.”
Charis nibbled on the tip of her fingernail. Although she wanted to argue with him, the thought of her father gave her pause. She didn’t want to do anything to upset or worry him, and for a moment, she was afraid Amon would threaten to tell him all of her plans.
Seeming to sense her discomfort, Amon added, “No bandit would be foolish enough to approach a carriage bearing the royal crest. Would you object to me offering the hospitality of a carriage and a room at my father’s townhouse in the city? I was planning to return to Maze for the festival anyway, so it wouldn’t be an inconvenience.”
“I’d like to accept your offer, but the thought of receiving help from King Casimer—even if it’s merely a carriage ride—makes my stomach churn.”
Amon’s laugh came out as a throaty, bitter cackle. “Think of it the same way I do. You’re not accepting his help. You’re using his own resources against him.”
Charis could only stare blankly as she considered this new perspective. Then, a wry grin slowly spread across her face. It was fitting to use the king’s own resources against him. “How is it that you have access to a carriage bearing the royal crest?”
Amon’s cheek twitched and his eyes narrowed. “That’s a silly question, isn’t it? My mother is Casimer’s sister. That means the crest of the Royal Family is also my crest. I do understand your feelings of revulsion though. After I learned the truth about my father’s murder, I wanted to disavow all associations I had with my uncle. Fortunately, an older and wiser person pointed out that doing so would likely end up with me meeting an untimely end, too. Then my father would have gone unavenged and my mother would have lost both her husband and her son.”
“They gave you good advice,” Charis said, nodding fiercely in agreement. Her eyes widened as another thought occurred to her. “If I’m staying at the townhouse, where will you stay?”
Amon laughed at her obvious discomfort, and this time his mirth was authentic. “For such a fiercely independent woman, you’re suddenly awfully worried about the appearance of propriety.”
Charis wrinkled her nose and sniffed. “It’s one thing to travel alone, and another altogether to share lodgings with a man your own age.”
“So you fear being seen with me more than you fear the bandits and pickpockets?”
“In some ways, you are far more dangerous.”
“You have nothing to fear. Can you imagine the trouble it would cause if the king’s nephew were involved in a scandal? I will be a perfect gentleman, I assure you,” Amon said, and then his lips turned up in a wolfish smile. “Even if it’s only because society dictates that I must be one.”
Charis took a wary step back but found that she didn’t actually dislike the fiery look in his deep-blue eyes. “That’s all the more reason for me to be concerned about maintaining the appearance of propriety.”
“First of all, even if we both stayed at the townhouse, we wouldn’t be alone. I employ a live-in housekeeper and a cook year round. Second, while I do normally stay at the townhouse when I go home, I am sure my mother would be thrilled to have me visit with her in Nyx. You can have the townhouse to yourself. Although it’s not the fanciest house in Maze, I’m sure you’ll find the accommodations to be quite comfortable.”
Charis reached out and brushed a wayward lock of hair off his forehead. “Thank you,” she said. “I mean that sincerely.”
“It is my pleasure,” he replied without hesitation. “I do have one question for you, however. Why do the Ohanzee want you to meet with them?”
“They want these,” Charis said, and she reached into the suitcase for Nerissa’s crystal chimes, taking care not to cut herself again on the letter.
Amon’s face lit up at the sight of the cloth the crystals were wrapped in. “You still have my handkerchief. I assumed you would have gotten rid of it long ago, all things considered. Actually, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had burned it.”
“Oh, believe me, I considered it many times,” she said, blushing as she unfolded the fabric to reveal the stones swaddled inside.
Perplexed, he looked down at the transparent gems cupped between her hands. “What do they want these for?”
“I have no idea,” Charis replied, relieved to be able to tell him the whole truth for a change. “But it must be important or they wouldn’t have asked for them.”
“They must be,” he concurred. “I’ll arrange for a carriage to come tomorrow evening. We’ll arrive in Maze the night before the festival begins.”
Charis cast a glance at the woeful state of her room. “Well, I suppose it won’t hurt to have some time to straighten up before we leave.”
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© 2017 Rachel R. Smith