Adelicia hid in a dark alcove, beyond the firefly glow of her Royal Guardian’s lamp. She ignored the earthy scent of damp stone and forced her breathing deeper, slower, calmer. Saving Tuck had been worth the risk. No matter how angry the Guardian is. Renar’s precaution was not a moment too soon, for just then she flinched at the familiar clink of a guard’s breastplate. If someone saw her, the inevitable gossip would raise suspicion. They would wonder what the Princess was doing in such a low corridor, and question where that bedraggled lad had truly come from.
The boy fidgeting at Renar’s side squinted into the alcove until the Guardian yanked him out of sight. She heard a guardsman’s pike thump the alabaster floor in salute and shrank farther into the shadows.
“Good eve, Lord Guardian. Who do you have there?”
Renar made an ursine grunt. “A tiny thief. I tracked him from the Royal Wing.” Adelicia raised an eyebrow at the lie, knowing full well how it would gall her Guardian. But, all things considered, she had not left him much choice. Renar continued, “He had nerve enough to steal a glowlamp, but not the wit to close the shutters.”
Tuck, the lad whom Adelicia had smuggled into the Palace, squawked in protest. “Hold your tongue, lad.” She heard Tuck mutter something undoubtedly rude in response. The guard chuckled. Adelicia caught herself worrying her lip and swallowed instead. Just steps beyond where she hid, a stone lion hid the staircase she had used to leave the cliff-built court unseen.
“Aye, then. Laundry as punishment?”
“Just for tonight. The weavers will want him back tomorrow.”
“Very good, Lord Guardian, I’ll see to it. Come, lad.” The pike thumped again. Rolling her tense shoulders, Adelicia watched Renar return down the corridor, passing her, keeping up appearances until the guard had turned a corner. Then slowly, the lamp’s glow flickered back towards her, until Renar’s blue-eyed scowl prompted her out of the alcove and towards the Royal Wing.
“There’s no need to be a bear. All is well.”
Renar glared at her soothing tone. “That was too close, Delice. One lad’s fortune is simply not worth the risk.”
She knew he could not understand the guilt she felt—the feeling that she had to atone for the legacy of her parents. How could he expect her to simply smile and dance, when they both knew who was responsible for the kingdom’s plight? Unwilling to broach the old argument again, she tugged her frustration on her long braid that hung to her waist.
Her Guardian glanced over his shoulder. “This must be the last time. The more you use the staircase, the less it remains a secret. If an enemy of the King should ever discover its existence…” He growled. “What use is my having built up the guard, if you choose to leave the Palace unescorted?”
Adelicia unclasped the dark woollen cloak that had concealed the periwinkle sheen of her silk gown. “If the King refuses to open his eyes, then I’ll risk far more to help who I can.” She noticed a seed of suspicion take root on Renar’s brow and cursed silently. Don’t let him sense you’re hiding something. Smoothing her countenance, she crossed her arms over the bundled cloak. “There are orphans crouching in hovels practically at the court’s feet. Dozens of them, Renar. Surely, we can—”
“No.” Renar shot a long-suffering glance at Adelicia and ran a hand through his greying hair. “You’ll be crowned Queen in two days. If I have to break the lion with my bare hands, I’ll do it. No more moonlight disappearances, orphan rescues, or truth-spun backstories that the lads cannot keep straight.” His tone forbade discussion. “Promise me.”
Adelicia pulled at her collar, feeling a trickle of sweat slide down her back. She looked away, studying a rat as it scuttled across the passageway ahead, its eyes glowing balefully at their intrusion. She wished she could confide in Renar. Instead, she blindly reached out for his lamp. When her proffered hand remained empty, she forced herself to meet his eye. Renar was staring at her with the perceptive, crinkled gaze that for the last eighteen years could read past her veiled candour.
She set her jaw. “Very well. You have my word.”
It was the least she could do. And the most.
For the last year, she and her Royal Guardian had consumed themselves in preparation for her Coronation. However, Renar had not the slightest idea that she was considering to refuse the crown. Betraying everyone and everything she knew.
Finally in possession of the lamp, she lifted it to eye level as she walked, watching the fireflies bump against the sides of the cage and swirl in confusion. Two more days until they gave her a paper throne. Would she set it on fire? She had not yet made up her mind. But she was running out of time.
© 2017 A. Reiter - The Paper Throne
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