They buried the bodies. It went quickly. The soldiers were used to digging graves, and Lady Via’s magic helped significantly. General Narsi said it was the least they could do. Though they’d betrayed the kingdom, General Helianthus’ troops had served for a significant time and ultimately helped Nastur win the war against Gladiolus. Lady Via had protested only once.
The remaining troops and Camellia had then packed up what had been their camp, taking what was important to them or others. They’d take the horses back to the castle with them. If any of the remaining troops had anything to return to the families of the deceased, General Narsi said they were free to take and return them once everything was settled. He apologized for the trouble that everyone had been through, warned them of the journey ahead.
General Narsi and Lady Via led them back to the castle. Lady Via cast a spell to try to track the remaining members of General Helianthus’ troop. In addition to Cori, they noticed a few bodies were missing. Whether they were traitors or deserters was impossible to tell at this point. Chrysan was unnaturally quiet and brooding—he didn’t even protest at tracking their former comrades like Camellia had expected him to. She was grateful for it though, much preferring the silence to the bustle her old comrades could usually create. She wasn’t much in the mood for talking.
It felt like there was a blanket covering them as they traveled. A heavy weight keeping everyone in their own bubble as they rode on horseback. The troop felt like prisoners no matter how often and how adamantly General Narsi insisted they weren’t. Tarra tried to keep spirits up, but it was clear she was just as weary as the rest of them.
Finally arriving back at the castle was a blessing.
General Narsi instructed the soldiers to be treated as guests. Maidservants led them to rooms as the general, Lady Via, and Viola went to make their report to King Daucus. Tarra offered to give her own account, but General Narsi told her to please wait for now, that she would give a formal report in the coming days. She accepted graciously.
Camellia, when given the freedom, went straight to Princess Siana’s room. She nodded lightly at the maidservant and let herself in.
It occurred to her only when Siana looked at her that, maybe, she should have gone to bathe first.
But the shock, the worry in the princess’ eyes gave way to relief and joy quickly. Camellia felt herself thaw underneath Siana’s eyes.
“Lady Camellia,” Siana breathed easily, her lips curling into a smile. “I’m relieved you’re back. How was your journey?”
Camellia nodded. “I… am also relieved I’m back,” she answered.
Siana reached up, flipping hair over Camellia’s shoulders. “You look a mess from your travels,” she said. “And harmed—did the doctors treat you already?”
“An old comrade did,” Camellia said. “I’m fine.”
“Should I have Lily draw you a bath?”
Camellia shook her head, closing her eyes, reveling in the almost-touch of the princess.
“What’s the matter?” Siana asked, her voice soft on the other side of Camellia’s lids—it felt like the other side of the world.
“You will likely hear the report soon, if not tomorrow,” Camellia began. She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. The room smelled like flowers, like the princess’ perfume. “The majority of my unit was affiliated with traitors and rebels, General Helianthus included.”
Siana’s almost-touch became tangible. She ran a delicate hand along Camellia’s arm. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Camellia opened her eyes to see Siana in front of her, looking at her with large, brown, sad eyes. “Chrysan said they told him we were meant to die when we went to rescue you.”
“Is Chrysan among the traitors?”
“No,” she answered quickly. “No, neither is Tarra. A few escaped. General Narsi brought those he could back to question.”
Siana nodded. “Are you alright, My Knight?”
“I…” Camellia blinked quickly. Swallowed hard. She had been trying not to think about that question, until now. “I always have regrets. I always feel bad after killing someone, but… as long as I’ve been the one to survive, that’s been enough.”
Siana nodded, her hands still running up and down the length of Camellia’s arms.
“It does not feel like enough right now.”
“It will,” Siana said assuredly. She smiled and brushed Camellia’s hair from her eyes. “It feels enough for me that you’re here with me now, safe and sound.”
Camellia nodded. “It will,” she repeated, like a promise.
“Good,” Siana said, her voice barely above a whisper. There was something—such tenderness—in her eyes that it made Camellia want to shrink from it. The princess touched her often, and Camellia had come to like and to lean into the physical affections when Her Highness offered them. But this… the way she looked at Camellia, like she couldn’t believe Camellia was in front of her—even uncouth and unwashed, filled with guilt—like Camellia was a gift? It was too much.
“I will go and bathe, Your Highness,” Camellia said, for an excuse to get out of there. To be alone.
“I will have Lily fix you a bath here,” she said decisively, nodding to herself. She walked to the door, sticking her head out. “Lily! Dear—hello—please draw a bath for Lady Camellia.”
Camellia took a deep breath, trying to calm herself for an entirely new reason.
She had completely forgotten about the night before leaving. She hadn’t wanted to leave. Had it been an order from Princess Siana, Camellia would have dropped any thought of vengeance. That thought terrified her. Because of course she wanted to know the truth—to know whether or not General Helianthus had been a traitor, but… she didn’t have to be the one to kill him. It left a hole in her stomach, in her chest, just like she knew it would.
But Siana came back into the room and took Camellia’s hands in hers. They weren’t as soft as they had been in the past—calloused now, from learning a sword—but they were a warm, heavy comfort in her hand. And Siana smiled, tugging Camellia’s hand to the bathroom after Lily.
And Camellia thought that, maybe, Siana would fill what felt empty. That she would listen to anything this princess said and that she would do it happily.
Viola was sitting in the garden with Cera. He was telling her all about what had happened in the castle while she was gone.
Lord Denia had made a few visits, and Her Highness was coordinating with him on how best to help people who needed it. Things were, according to Cera, going well with Lord Denia’s plans. There was hope in his voice and it welled in her chest. Viola tried not to think about the look on Chrysan’s face as he fought with his friends, on Camellia’s as she screamed over the dead body of her old commander. She tried to think about what Cera was saying.
Cera had always been the best at cheering her up. He’d moved on from his theories about who Lord Denia should propose to next to the dinner menus she’d missed while she was gone. Luckily, none of her favorites, Cera assured her. It was nice to listen to the petty problems of the rich and privileged when they didn’t concern her. Marriage and food were easy topics and Cera knew that.
“Am I interrupting something?” a voice called from behind them.
Viola turned around.
Chrysan stood behind the two of them, freshly bathed and in new clothes. A blue tunic and creamy-colored pants. His boots were worn and dull though—a dead giveaway that he was a soldier, despite the clean face.
“Are you restless already?” Viola asked, not quite hitting the mark of teasing. She was too tired. She could barely even look at Chrysan, and her eyes drifted back to Cera at her side. “Cera, this is Chrysan. Camellia’s former comrade. An archer.”
“Ah.” Cera nodded in recognition at the name.
Chrysan walked over and sat down on Viola’s other side.
“Do you need something?” Viola asked. She leaned backwards, lying in the grass.
“I wanted to talk,” he answered.
“You can’t even wait until tomorrow?”
“I think time is of the essence, Viola,” Chrysan said, his voice even. He was looking into the distance, somewhere at the horizon, maybe just into the endless blue of the sky, but it was with none of the calm that had come over Viola since returning to the castle. His was a stormy, intense look—the kind she’d seen very rarely in all the time she had known him.
She glanced over at Cera. His face was open—unguarded. He felt out of the loop and was picking grass out from the ground, next to his legs. “I’ll return to Her Highness,” he said. “I’m sure Camellia is tired, too. She reported right to Her Highness, but she should rest as well.”
“I’m sorry, Cera,” she said, sitting up.
He shook his head and pushed himself up, leaving Chrysan and Viola alone. Chrysan made no indication that he’d even noticed Cera leave. Viola bumped his shoulder with her own.
“You don’t like being back here?” she asked.
“I was expecting you to leave,” Chrysan answered.
Viola cocked her head.
“Take what you can and get out of here,” he explained. He looked at her finally, like it pained him to do so. “You don’t like it here any more than I do. You had everything you needed to prove his guilt. Why did you force an investigation?”
Viola scoffed. “You were the one who acted as though the second letter should remain a secret.”
“It wasn’t meant to protect the castle, or the king, or anything else like that—it was meant to protect you,” Chrysan said.
“You told me to decide who to trust. You told me to decide what was important.”
He huffed, turning back towards whatever it was that had his attention in front of them.
“What is going on with you?” Viola asked. She wanted to reach out, make sure it was still him, the same person she’s known for years in front of her, not some illusion, some spell someone had cast on her.
“I had a plan,” he said. “Helianthus was going to attack the castle. If I was there for it, then I… He called the war a sham. He knew something—I just don’t know what it was.”
Chrysan huffed a sigh, ruffling his hair, and Viola eyed him suspiciously.
His hands fell to his lap and he amended, “I have a plan. Did you hold onto the letter I gave you?” The look in his eyes was slowly starting to come alive again, the look on his face starting to brighten. This was the man she was familiar with.
“Yes,” she said slowly, “I did.”
“May I ask for it back?”
She stared at him. He turned to look at her when she didn’t answer.
“The castle is still going to be attacked.”
“But the General—”
“He was never the leader of the rebels,” he explained. “The first letter said when there was no other choice, they would rise on the sword. They’ll make their move. With Cori’s expertise, it will likely be soon.”
“How can you be sure?” Viola asked, eyeing him cautiously.
“The longer they wait, the more they lose their jump on us. The king should know, don’t you think?” Chrysan remarked easily with a smile. Viola sighed. She remembered him saying he was going to do something stupid. She’d thought it was giving her the letters at first, but maybe she was wrong.