Cera had a sad, apologetic look on his face as he led Camellia to one of the king’s waiting rooms. It reminded Camellia of when Via first returned to the castle and accused her of being a traitor, when Cera had been the one to lead her away from the dining hall. Camellia tried to prepare herself for whatever bad news was awaiting her. As soon as the two of them entered the room, Camellia looked around to ascertain her situation.
Viola was back. Safe, but she looked rattled. Upset, with a similar look to the one Cera had.
Her Highness, Princess Siana was sitting next to her father, across from Via. None of them had faces that gave anything away but trepidation.
The biggest hint to the nature of the situation was the presence of Lord Narsi Quill. He was a member of the court, one of the king’s most trusted. A general. Camellia saw him every so often in the barracks or around the castle or grounds. He was short, shorter than her own General Helianthus, but with a much stonier air around him. He felt a bit jagged, a bit sharp, like being rammed into the edge of a cliff by the ocean. Camellia had, so far, avoided a conversation with the man, but here he was sitting at the table in front of her. He was staring at her with deep, chillingly blue eyes, and she knew something serious must have come from Viola’s report.
Narsi was the first one to speak after Camellia and Cera greeted the king and princess. The general cleared his throat, sliding a slip of paper towards her on the desk. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
Camellia approached slowly, looking the note over. It was a letter addressed to a drawing of the sun. As she read it, she felt her stomach sink.
“What… is this?” she asked, glancing around the table. Everyone’s faces were impassive—except for Viola’s. It was slight, but Camellia saw the nervous twitch in Viola’s hand before she made it into a fist on the table and forced herself to turn, to look up at Camellia.
“Lady Via was having me investigate your old comrades,” she began nervously. To see if you were betraying us, she didn’t say. “And I discovered this letter in the troupe’s camp.”
Viola found and held eye contact even as Lord Narsi began talking.
“Is there anything suspicious to you about this letter?” he asked. Rather than the biting anger Camellia expected, it was a resigned, tired voice that came out of his mouth. He raked his hands over his face. It was so quiet as everyone waited for Camellia’s answer that she heard the scratch of his stubble on his palms.
Camellia pushed the letter back like the proximity would burn her. “Suspicious?” she echoed. “Are you asking the authenticity of the letter?”
Lord Narsi tapped on the top of the paper. “You have the most experience with the rebel insurgence and the way they communicate,” he explained. “The seal at the bottom. Is it legitimate, or is General Helianthus being set up?”
The urge to defend her old general surged up like bile, but Camellia swallowed it again. She took a deep breath before she struggled to find an answer based on logic. “I… the impression is not something I’ve ever seen before, but… I can’t say it doesn’t belong to someone within Gladioli resistance. It’s a common flower past the border. Anyone would have access to it. The resistance as a whole could have adopted it, for all I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved.”
“Do you believe that a soldier or someone in the Nasturian insurrection would have planted this to frame General Helianthus?” Narsi asked.
“It must have been,” Camellia answered definitively. She barely saw the snap of Viola’s eyes to hers. Camellia continued, “I don’t know what enemies the general has, but there’s no way he could be involved in the insurrection here. And to facilitate communication between Nastur traitors and Gladioli rebels after fighting both? It makes no sense.”
“It’s always possible he’s changed sides,” Via chimed in from her side of the table. “You did, after all.”
Camellia swallowed around the lump in her throat, blinked back the stinging in her eyes. “And I know how easy it is to sow doubt in peoples minds as well,” she said, no sign of discomfort in her voice. “General Helianthus and I worked together throughout the war on my own country, and he never doubted me. He’s never given me a reason to doubt him, either.”
“Isn’t not doubting you in the first place a bit of a reason to cast suspicion on him?” Via asked, cocking her head.
“I saw him kill rebels without remorse. Children. The ones who abducted the princess,” Camellia explained. “If you want to call somebody’s loyalty into question, it isn’t General Helianthus’.”
“There were… other letters,” Viola said carefully. “All addressed to the sun, all hidden away in his tent.”
Camellia wanted to be mad—to defend his privacy. Viola shouldn’t have been digging around in the general’s tent! His confidential things! But Camellia steeled herself. She knew what it was like, being undercover, having to do things she would rather not do. It felt personal, but they both knew it wasn’t. Camellia sighed, eyes falling from meeting Viola’s.
“There must be an explanation,” Camellia said dully.
“Do tell,” the magician cooed.
“I don’t…” Camellia inhaled. Looked around the table.
Siana’s eyes were bright—shining—as she watched Camellia’s mind struggle to fixate on a plan. The king, next to her, looked almost bored with the entire exchange. Via sounded positively delighted, while Viola and Cera had matching miserable expressions. Narsi was hard to read in general, and it was impossible for Camellia at this moment.
“Let me investigate,” Camellia declared. “I’m closer to him than Viola is. I’ll be able to speak with him—to pull the truth from him personally.”
Narsi piqued an eyebrow.
“Absolutely not!” Via slammed her hands down on the table. “Your Majesty, you can’t possibly allow this! You’ve allowed Camellia nearly untethered access to the castle, the barracks, and Her Highness. She said herself she worked with General Helianthus throughout the war. They’re close. She may decide to betray the castle to protect him. Not to mention she may have information he doesn’t—she would… undeniably be an asset to the general, if he turns out to be an enemy.”
King William cocked his head in favor of Via’s argument.
“Or,” Siana began slowly, eyeing Camellia, “she could be protecting our countrymen, as she’s protected me.”
Camellia swallowed hard. “If he is guilty, I’ll strike him down myself.”
“Strike down the man you say has trusted you for so long? Who you respect so much?” Via asked, her voice venomous. “Why should we trust your word?”
Narsi cleared his throat, the sound of it cutting through the tension of the room. All eyes turned to him, and Camellia understood how he commanded the royal troops. “Perhaps Lady Via is correct. Perhaps we shouldn’t trust Lady Camellia. But Her Highness is placing all bets on her knight. If she is willing even to part with her personal bodyguard…”
Siana nodded at the general.
“… then we should trust our princess as well. I and Lady Via will accompany her as well. Our Lady Viola knows the most about the situation. She can lead us and a small unit and take point. We will uncover the truth and lead the way to justice.”
Viola straightened up when her name was spoken, and she nodded. “Understood, sir,” she said.
Siana looked between Narsi and Viola, to Camellia, and then finally to the magician. “An excellent plan, General Narsi. Do you find this acceptable, Lady Via?”
Via’s eyes slid to the king. “Yes, I do. Your Majesty?”
“General Narsi and I will discuss the finer details and give orders tonight. They will leave tomorrow morning, and Cera will relieve Camellia of her post at Siana’s side,” the king ordered. “Understood?”
When everyone confirmed, he dismissed them. Camellia followed Siana to her chambers where a maidservant was cleaning up. Siana sent the girl away and collapsed onto her bed once she was alone with Camellia.
“Do you believe he would betray my people?” Siana asked into her pillow, peeking up to look at Camellia through thick lashes and tired eyes.
Camellia shook her head. “I don’t. But if he is, he won’t be doing it for much longer.”
Siana’s eyes trailed down Camellia’s body, pausing at her shaking fists. “Will you be okay?”
“Please don’t worry about me, Your Highness.”
Siana reached out her hand, and Camellia approached, close enough that Siana could take her fingers. Siana held Camellia’s fist, massaged the anger out of it until Camellia relaxed. “Of course I would worry,” she said. “What would I do if my favorite knight were to go on a mission and never come back after she promised to protect me?”
“I taught you to protect yourself in those instances,” Camellia answered, her voice soft, her gaze softer. “You’re doing well in your lessons.”
“I have a good teacher,” she answered, eyes wandering down to look at their intertwined hands. “Tell me if you don’t want to go. Tell me you don’t and I’ll keep you here.”
“I have to know if General Helianthus is a traitor or not,” Camellia said. “I have to clear his name. Find out who would do this. I don’t…”
Camellia paused to take a deep breath.
“My people are survivors,” she said delicately. “But I’ve seen so many die. The war ended, but there’s still so much fighting. The insurrection here in Nastur and the rebels in Gladiolus are still fighting. If General Helianthus is aiding the kidnapping of civilians… If he killed those kids, while they thought they could trust him… I must stop him.”
Siana nodded, sighing into her pillow. “Stay with me until then.”
Camellia sat gently on the edge of Siana’s bed, and watched as the room became darker and darker, until it was nighttime and the king and general Narsi called to give her her orders.
The next morning, Camellia mounted Leif and rode out, her chest vibrating with anxiety. Viola led them on her own horse, and Via was riding at her side.
They hardly spoke as they traveled towards General Helianthus’ camp.