The moment we entered the courtyard, and before I could even see anyone beyond the walls, the raw and nearly out-of-control panic radiating from the man standing near a horse slammed into me.
“Harlan,” Casteel called. “Bring me Setti.”
“Already on it,” the young man responded, leading the horse out as the man turned to us.
I sucked in a sharp breath. The entire front of his shirt and breeches were stained red. That much blood…
“Please.” The man started toward us and then jerked to a stop. At first, I thought it was the sudden presence of several wolven that seemed to appear out of nowhere, but the man started to bow.
“There is no need for that.” Casteel stopped him, his grip slipping to my hand as I let go of my gown. “Your child is injured?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The man’s eyes—Atlantian eyes—bounced between us as Kieran stepped out of the front doors of the home, his hand on the hilt of his sword. With one look, he picked up his pace, entering the stables. “My little girl. Marji. She was right beside us,” he told us, his voice cracking. “We told her to wait, but she…she just took off, and we didn’t see the carriage. We didn’t see her do it until it was too late. The Healer says that nothing can be done, but she still breathes, and we heard—” Wild, dilated eyes flicked to me as Harlan brought Setti forward. “We heard about what you did in Spessa’s End. If you could help my little girl… Please? I beg of you.”
“There’s no need to beg,” I told him, heart twisting as his grief tore through me. “I can try to help her.”
“Thank you,” the man’s words came out with a rush of air. “Thank you.”
“Where is she?” Casteel asked as he took Setti’s reins.
As the man answered, I gripped the saddle and hoisted myself up without getting my legs tangled in the gown. No one reacted to how I was able to seat myself on Setti as Casteel swung up behind me, and Kieran joined us, already astride his horse. No one spoke as we left the courtyard, following the man onto the tree-lined road. We rode down the hill fast, accompanied by the wolven and Delano, who had shifted and was now a blur of white loping over rocks and darting between trees and then structures and horses.
We had just talked about seeing the city, but this wasn’t how I imagined it happening. The ride was a blur of blue skies and a sea of faces, narrow, tight roads, and gardens nestled between sweeping buildings adorned with heavily flowered vines. I couldn’t focus on any of it as the urge to help the child took center stage. And that desire…it was different. It was hard to comprehend because the need to help others with my gift had always been there, but this was more intense. As if it was an instinct that equaled breathing. And I didn’t know if that had anything to do with everything that had happened or if it was borne of the need to learn if my gifts could still ease pain and heal instead of what I’d done at the Chambers.
My heart pounded as we entered a street crowded with people. They stood in front of homes and on cobblestone sidewalks, their unease and grief sinking into my skin as my gaze settled on a plain white carriage left unattended in the road.
The father drew his horse to a halt in front of a narrow, two-story home with windows that faced the glittering bay. As Casteel brought Setti to a stop, a wild mix of emotions rose from within the wrought-iron-enclosed courtyard and slammed into me, knocking the breath from my lungs. I twisted to find Kieran at our side. He reached up, grasping my arms.
“Do you have her?” Casteel demanded of Kieran.
“Always,” he replied.
Casteel’s grip on me slipped away, and Kieran helped me down. The moment my feet were on the ground, Casteel was beside me. I glanced at the carriage, seeing strands of hair tangled in the wheel—I quickly looked away before I saw anything else.
“Through here,” the father said, his long legs carrying him over the sidewalk and through the gate.
A man dressed in gray stood at the entrance to the garden. He turned to us. A satchel hung from his shoulder, and several pouches were clipped to the belt around his waist. I knew at once that he was the Healer.
“Your Highness, I must apologize for this disruption,” the man said, the sun glinting off the smoothness of his bald head. His eyes were a vivid gold. The Healer was Atlantian. “I told the parents the child was beyond our care and that she would soon enter the Vale. That there was nothing to do. But they insisted that you come h-here.” He stuttered over the last word as he looked at me. His throat worked on a swallow. “They had heard that she—”
“I know what they heard about my wife,” Casteel stated as Delano prowled ahead. “This is no disruption.”
“But the child, Your Highness. Her injuries are significant, and her vitals are not conducive to life. Even if your wife can ease pain and heal bones with her touch,” the Healer said, his rejection of such an ability clear. “The child’s injuries are far beyond that.”
“We shall see,” Casteel answered.
I inhaled sharply as we walked through the gate. There were so many people huddled together in the small garden. My throat dried as I struggled to make sense of what I felt from them. I…I tasted bitter panic and fear. It soaked the air, but what raised the hairs on my arms was the intense, scalding pain coming through my senses, painting the blue sky a maroon, and darkening the ground, tainting the flowers so lovingly cared for. It fell in endless waves of acute agony, like dull razor blades scraping against my skin.
A pale-skinned man turned as he dragged his hands over his head, tugging at wheat-colored strands. Shock and the bitterness of horror punched through the choking pain. His panic was so potent that it was a tangible entity as he stared at Casteel.
“I didn’t see her, Your Highness,” the man cried, looking over his shoulder. “I didn’t even see her. Gods, I’m sorry.” He staggered around and then toward the group. “I’m so sorry.”
Casteel spoke softly to the man as Delano moved ahead, shouldering through the crowd. I heard the sound of gulping cries, the kind of sobs that stole the breath, and most of the sound.
“I brought help,” I heard the father say. “Do you hear me, Marji? I brought someone who is going to try to help you…”
My stomach lurched as I saw the limp body—a too-small form clutched to the chest of a woman on her knees, who shared the same auburn hair. The father crouched at the child’s head. It was the woman making those ragged, broken sounds. Her emotions were frenzied, shifting from terror to sorrow to murky disbelief.
“Come on, baby girl, open your eyes for your papa.” Her father shifted closer, carefully brushing her hair back—
The child’s hair wasn’t auburn.
That was blood streaking the light brown strands—hair that matched the father’s. My gaze swept over the child as Delano circled the huddled group. One leg wasn’t lying right, twisted at an unnatural angle. “Open your eyes for me,” her father pleaded. A murmur of surprise rose from those who stood in the garden as they realized that the Prince was among them. “Open your eyes for your momma and me, baby girl. There’s someone here to help.”
The mother’s gaze darted around those standing there. I didn’t think she saw a single face when she uttered, “She won’t open her eyes.”