The siege had ended. Lord Kern, the dark mage, was dead.
Maren pushed her forehead against the warm glass, straining for a better view of the commotion below. A cheer went up from the crowd, and she searched for any sign of the man making his way to the castle. The man who’d saved the city – and the kingdom.
All she could see was a mass of bodies, crowding the path leading up from the city gates.
It wasn’t uncommon to see people in the streets of Delorme. They’d come every day for the past two and a half years, standing in subdued silence as they waited for the daily rations that grew more and more meager as the weeks went by. But today the crowd wasn’t silent. Today was different.
The tent cities beyond the wall, once teeming with soldiers draining the city of life, were now abandoned, destroyed, thin plumes of smoke the only movement. What was left of the lush, green fields sat charred and barren. Desolate.
Maren jumped back from the window and felt the color rise to her cheeks.
“It’s all right, Maren,” Adare said, trying to get her own view of the street below. “We’re all curious. And you have more right than the rest of us. You knew him better than anyone.”
The dull, familiar ache in her chest forced Maren to hesitate until she was sure she could speak without her voice breaking. Even then, she couldn’t meet the queen’s eyes. “I’m not sure I knew him at all.”
Adare didn’t comment, instead turning her attention back to the crowd. “I wish I could be out there with them. But that would be beneath my station.”
Maren managed a small laugh. “But would you really give it all up?”
Adare thought. “Most of it. But not Daric. Although what he ever saw in a plain girl with no fortune or political connections will always be a mystery.”
True, Adare wasn’t beautiful. Her eyes were too small, her nose too wide, and although her hair was a rich shade of gold, it neither hung in a beautiful, straight curtain, or in large, soft curls like Maren’s own. None of that mattered when she smiled. It was like the sun coming out after a storm. “I think the king fell in love.”
Now it was Adare’s turn to laugh. “Yes, he did. Despite all the advice of his Council.” She shrugged. “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”
No, Maren thought. You can’t.
After another moment, Adare sighed and stepped away from the window. “They’ll be at the castle within the hour.”
Maren’s stomach knotted. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“Are you all right?” Adare’s brows wrinkled in concern. “Does it hurt?”
Maren instinctively pulled the fabric of her dress over her shoulder as far as possible. “No more than normal. It isn’t that.”
“You’ll have to face him sometime.”
“I know, but it’s been three years.”
Adare’s smile was full of sympathy. “All the more reason not to put it off any longer.” She paused. “I won’t order you to come. I’d never order you to do anything. I’m asking. I can’t stand up there in front of everyone with only the other Ladies. I need you. As a friend.”
Maren kept her eyes lowered. “Daric will be there.”
“But even he doesn’t understand. He’s been on display his entire life. It comes natural.” She took a deep breath. “It’s easier for him to hide his heartache. Besides, the people love him.”
The people loved her even more. But Adare would never believe it.
A dimple appeared at the corner of Adare’s mouth. “Good. I want to watch his reaction when he sees you.”
Maren managed a weak smile. She was afraid his reaction wouldn’t be at all what the queen was expecting.