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The layout of the top floor changed with every ruling family. Yinicof worked hard, keeping close personal oversight over the military she’d come from as well as the administrative needs of the kingdom. Which meant that most of the inner ring belonged to her—her public office, her private office, a meeting room, a waiting room, a study.

The King had his own office and study, but in all Guelida’s life, she’d never seen her father use either. She cut through them, taking the most direct path to her father’s sitting room. That was where she’d find him during the day. Any time. Always.

King Hyresh wasn’t alone. He was never alone. But rather than the courtiers and peers and staff that should have been the constant companions of the King of Aravene, Hyresh's attendants were doctors and medics and other professionals here to keep him safe from himself.

Today only one medic was in the room with the King. Which meant this was a good day. At Guelida’s entrance, the woman looked up and smiled, then returned to reading on her tablet.

Hyresh's room had been filled with every comfort, but that couldn’t hide the fact it was a prison. Feather-soft cushions on couches and chairs made for comfortable seating, but also kept her father separated from sharp edges and solid surfaces on which he might hurt himself. Long windows offered a stunning view of the mountains, but they didn’t open. Nor did Hyresh have access to the balconies that ran all around the tower.

The outer wall projected a recording of the most recent Royal Repertory ballet performance. Hyresh sat so close that the holographic dancers moved around and through him. He was entranced. He loved dancing, but he’d been in the midst of a series of bad days when the performance had been live, and he hadn’t been able to attend.

“Father?” Guelida held her breath as he turned to look at her, waiting for the clue that would tell her who he was today, and who he saw standing in her place.

A warm smile bloomed across his face. “Hello, my darling.” Definitely a good day.

No two people could have been more different than Hyresh and Yinicof. Yinicof was tall and dark and lean, with all of a soldier’s hard edges. Hyresh was pale and golden, warm and kind. Soft, Yinicof would say, although without the judgement her tone took on when she aimed that word at her children. Guelida never doubted her parents loved each other. They’d come close to destroying the nation because of it. She’d just never understood why.

The power of the vaiken, Fierre had told her. As had Anison, the one time Guelida had been foolish enough to ask him.

Guelida went to sit at her father’s feet. He took her hand, watching her with the deep blue eyes that were mirrors of her own. “Tell me about the army that marches on our walls.”

“No armies. Not today.”

He squinted, looking over her head, at the blank wall behind. “I see them. A strange army. Too small. Our soldiers in black alongside soldiers in green and gold.”

Hyresh was in the present today. Just not altogether here. “Not an army. A royal escort. Prince Bastyen ian Kardenel. The treaty, father. You remember?”

He shook his head, frowning. “Bastyen. Which one is he? I can’t make him out from the rest. Too many shadows. Too many faces.”

Guelida patted his arm with her free hand. “It’s all right. Anison’s with them. He knows which one the prince is.”

Hyresh’s smile faltered as his eyes swept the room. “Too many shadows. They say the nation has fallen. The invaders—“

The medic looked up from her reading, watched Guelida’s father, but didn’t interfere. Not yet.

Guelida knew this story well enough now, although it had frightened her as a child. So many things her father talked about had frightened her until she learned that most of the time it wasn’t real. Or at least, hadn’t been real for a very long time. “No invaders. The invaders are gone. We won that war.” No point explaining yet again that the invaders had been dead for thousands of years. “Really, it’s just Anison coming home.”

Guelida pulled her hand away and stood. “I should go.”

“Already?”

The open sadness on her father’s face broke Guelida’s heart, but even her guilt couldn’t keep her here long. It was too hard. “Once the treaty’s settled, I’ll have more time.”

“It’s sweet of you to say.” How was it Hyresh couldn’t remember who he was, or who she was most days, but he always knew when she lied to him?

Outside his room, Guelida stopped and leaned back against the wall, eyes closed, breathing deep. An arm pressed into her shoulder. Zairr at her side again. “You okay?” he asked.

Guelida didn’t answer. It wasn’t a real question anyway. Just words to fill the silence. Zairr knew exactly how she felt. Even if he didn’t know the entire reason why.

Zairr’s very reasonable belief was that Guelida felt bad after time with her father because she hated seeing him that way. Which was true. She loved her father, and hated to see him lost so often in his own mind.

But the real reason these visits upset her, the real reason she avoided Hyresh as much as she could, even as she hated herself for doing it, was that every time she looked at him, all she could see was her own future staring back at her.

“Where’s Alie?” Guelida asked Zairr in a deliberate change of subject.

“In her room,” he answered immediately. “Want me to tell her we’re coming down?”

“Do that.” Guelida needed a break. She needed her sister.

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Barbara J Webb

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