The tent was drier and warmer than I expected. Haemon and Milena had already helped themselves to a generous portion of food. I didn't have much time to observe the surroundings before Quis grabbed my shoulder and tossed me into a corner.
"You don't have to treat her so poorly," Milena said.
"I shouldn't have to treat her at all," Quis grumbled. He tore a loaf of bread in half and tossed it at me. "There. Eat that."
I accepted it and nodded at him. "Thank you." I wasn't feeling that grateful, but if there was ever a time to exercise diplomacy, this was probably it. I went over the checklist in my head. Start by remembering everyone's name. The man in black armor was Haemon. The woman in silver armor was Milena. And the annoying man bossing them around was Quis. Haemon and Milena were obviously fighters. They carried themselves like soldiers, but I didn't recognize them from any House. More troubling, both of them seemed to have a Dragongift, which was supposed to be a product of royal blood only. I watched Quis carefully. Did he have a Dragongift as well? I hadn't seen him display one yet. He seemed like the sort of person who would show it off at every occasion, so I hesitantly guessed that he did not. For some reason, they hadn't bothered to tie me up or lock me away. That would work to my advantage - I just had to wait for the right moment.
"I trust there were no other…" Quis glanced at me. "…Complications?"
"We handled it." Haemon leveled a cool gaze at Quis. "Although if you had been there, you wouldn't have to ask."
Quis's body stiffened. "You know I can't risk being recognized."
"Ah yes, because your master is such an important figure in the Seven Houses," Haemon's voice dripped with cynicism. My ears perked up. Quis was part of the Seven Houses? But I didn't recognize him at all.
Milena filled a cup with water and approached me. "You must be thirsty." I accepted it and downed the entire drink in one go. She waited until I had finished before she spoke again. "I was hoping we might chat. Just the two of us." Like I wanted to talk to the person who murdered my brother. I took a slow breath and nodded. It was all I could manage. She smiled and placed a comforting hand on my arm. "You're from House Ars, yes?" I nodded. "It seems you and High King Ciaran were close. Is he a friend?" Something in my expression must have given away my feelings. "Oh sweetie, I'm sorry you're so sad about what happened."
"What happened!?" I couldn't withhold a response any longer. "What happened is that you murdered him!" I snapped. "I'm not going to talk to you!"
Milena's cheerful smile disappeared in an instant. Her eyes glowed yellow, and her grip on my arm tightened. I winced as her gauntlet dug into my skin. "Is this how you repay my kindness?" she asked. Her voice had lost its honey. It sounded like iron hammered in fire. "I did what was best for everyone, and you will not question me." Heat raced from her hand and up my arm. I tried not to show any of my pain, but tears began to well up in my eyes. Milena's expression suddenly softened. "Oh, my poor child," She released her grip on me and dropped to one knee. She inspected the area where she had held me. A red mark was seared into my arm. "I'm so sorry, it's just that you upset me so much, I couldn't control myself. Forgive me?"
"I-" I swallowed and looked at her gauntlet. It still radiated heat. "I forgive you," I said.
"Good girl," she patted me fondly on the head. "Quis! Our poor guest has hurt herself. Bring over some bandages, will you?"
Quis spat on the ground. "Stop treating me like an errand boy." He straightened his back in an attempt to look bigger. "Need I remind you that I've been put in charge?"
"Oh yeah?" I snapped, turning the sting of my pain on him. "By whom?"
He stared at me in shock, but quickly regained his composure. "Someone very important. It's none of your business."
I turned to Milena, "You want to know if Ciaran and I were close? I traveled with him everywhere. And I have been to every House in the Kingdom, but I have never once seen him. He's lying to you."
"I am NOT!" Quis sputtered.
"What did he promise you?" I pressed. "Money? Power? Political favors? From his very important benefactor? It's not coming."
"She's lying!" Quis screamed. "She's trying to save herself." He was right about the second part, but they didn't have to know that.
"Then what?" Haemon eyed Quis with skepticism. "You've been evasive about the issue since the beginning. I think it's time we discussed our business more in-depth." He stood and placed a hand on his sword hilt. Milena followed suit. Quis took a tentative step away from them, and they both advanced on him. I leapt at the opportunity. I scrambled to my feet and bolted for the tent entrance.
"You idiots!" Quis' voice echoed through the clearing. "She played you!" I didn't bother to look over my shoulder. The head start wasn't much, and I didn't want to waste it.
If I could just make it to the forest, I was confident that I'd be able to find the den and hide in there. My feet pounded on the dirt. The trees were just within reach! A shadow stretched along the ground as I ran across the clearing. I didn't even have enough time to think it strange before I was jerked backwards by an unseen force. My feet scraped along the ground for a second before I felt myself hoisted aloft. The air turned colder with each second. With some effort, I managed to look over my shoulder to see what was holding me. My breath caught in my throat. A sleek narrow face studded with deep blue scales. Large, unblinking yellow eyes. I dangled helplessly in the air, held high by a giant pair of claws. The creature opened its mouth to reveal rows of polished teeth, each one perfectly sharp. My last thought before death was "Princess Elaina would be so smug if she knew dragons exist."