Kierah walked by the kitchens as often as she could inconspicuously manage, to sneak a glance at Rothan. Sometimes, he’d be nowhere in sight. Other times, she’d see him, and they’d share a quick wave.
She wasn’t entirely forbidden from checking in on him; he was, after all, one of the children rescued by her project idea. But she didn’t want to appear to give too much attention to just him, since there were a half dozen other kids in similar apprenticeship programs around the palace.
Traveling to Kelmar twice or more a week was taking its toll on her, and no amount of coffee could fully remedy it. She’d trip over nothing, or struggle to keep her eyes open in class, or miss portions of a test that she should easily know, because she kept dozing off.
Even in combat class, her favorite subject, she was missing shots and taking hits because what she needed, frankly, was sleep.
But right now, she was near the kitchens. And she’d found the boy and nodded at him. Check-in complete. Now would be a good time, she figured, to sneak in a nap.
Just as she was walking away from the kitchens, she heard footsteps approaching down the hallway. This in itself wasn’t noteworthy; walking down the hallway wasn’t forbidden.
However, the gait of this particular set of footsteps caught her ear. She was awake enough to notice that.
It was the prince. One of the last people she wanted to see right now. Why did it have to be when she was visiting Rothan, of all the kids she brought in?
“Hello, Your Highness,” she greeted him. “I’m just making the rounds to check in on my kids, the ones from —”
“Your project, indeed,” the prince filled in for her, understandingly.
She didn’t really appreciate him finishing her sentence for her, but she didn’t say so. Instead she just smiled, and hoped he’d leave her alone.
Then she paused. He’d called her by her name. The prince knew who she was? Did he know all 65 of the Enders by name?
“And how do they seem to be doing?” he asked.
It sounded like small talk was coming. Kierah groaned inwardly, as her eyes fought against her will to keep them open. She needed to get away from here and take a nap. That’s what she needed.
“Oh, they’re settling in just fine, sir,” she forced a smile.
“I think the whole idea was brilliant, just brilliant,” he smiled back, looking directly in her eyes. “It was your friend Zera’s idea, wasn’t it? For each Ender to focus on something that can give back to the community? Just brilliant.”
Her first name. It felt even more strange to hear him speak that. And somehow, it felt like it didn’t belong on his voice.
“This,” he gestured broadly to encompass the direction of the kitchen, “with the children? It tackles a weakness of the very basis of the experiment, that children weren’t a part of my original plan. It’s kind, and thoughtful, and takes a real-life approach to what these kids are lacking in the Ends: opportunity.”
“Oh no, I never meant it to disrespect your plan, sir,” she hastily reassured him. “You’ve thought of everything, particularly since the whole point of the experiment was to see if people who have lived in the Ends a long time can be, um, reformed. This wasn’t meant to say your plan had any shortcomings!”
He smiled at her, and she wasn’t sure how to take it.
“I meant no offense,” he said warmly, “and I took none when you brought up this topic for your project. I just think it’s excellent that you care for these kids so much, who have so much less than you. I mean, it would be easier to just stay here in the safety of the palace, but you went out to find them, to interact with them. It’s quite bold of you.”
“Well, thank you, sir, you’re too kind,” she said, just as a yawn creeped up on her and threatened to escape. She struggled to hold it back, but it was no use.
“Oh, am I boring you?” the prince chuckled.
Kierah was mortified. “I’m so sorry, Your Highness! Absolutely not! Apparently I’m just a little tired.”
“Are you?” the prince asked. “Have you been sleeping all right?”
“Oh yes, I’m fine, really. Sometimes I’m restless, that’s all,” she tried to shrug it off. “Nothing a little coffee can’t fix.”
“If you’ve been having a hard time sleeping, we could always have our medical staff take a look at you and make sure everything’s all right?” he offered. “Because if it’s affecting your performance in your classes, well, we can’t have that.”
“My performance, sir?” she asked, but inwardly she felt a twinge of panic. He knew about that? The prince himself?
Kierah gulped. “You were paying attention to my tests?”
He smiled disarmingly, almost condescendingly. “Of course I pay attention. Just like these kids are your project, the experiment is mine. You keep track of them, I keep track of you. Particularly those who show unique promise. Such as yourself.”
“Oh I don’t know that I show unique promise for anything,” she downplayed. “I’m just another Ender, sir.”
“Oh, I beg to differ,” Terzahn countered. “You excel in combat training and flight training, you accelerated in reading and math beyond what many of your peers are doing. This is why it’s noticeable when you get low marks for your performance. Has anything been on your mind lately?”
Kierah cringed. “No, Your Highness. Like I said, I just haven’t been sleeping well.”
“If you insist,” the prince was still smiling. “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know. I’m very interested in the progress of my Enders.”
He turned to walk away, and Kierah breathed a sigh of relief. But then he stopped and faced her again.
“Oh by the way,” he said, “I hadn’t intended to invite people in person, but since I’m here with you — my birthday is coming up soon, and there shall be a rather large, lavish party. All of the Enders are invited, of course, but since I’m here talking to you, I’d like to invite you myself. Would you do me the honor of attending the celebration?”
Kierah hadn’t seen that one coming. A party? That wasn’t really her idea of a good time. But she said the only thing she could think to say.
“Well, absolutely your highness. I, um, I’d be delighted.”
The prince’s smile expanded, if that were possible. He seemed quite pleased with her response. “No, Miss Kaelen, the delight would be all mine.”
– – – ———- – – – –
It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but with the help of Terula’s expert packing skills, Ari’s forged cargo transfer order, and Tate — and even Danan’s — cooperation, Kierah got into Kelmar three nights later with an extra bundle, toted along behind her in a wheeled case.
As soon as she got on the other side of the barracks door, she set the case sideways and opened it up. A little boy climbed out. Together, they joyfully, but carefully, tiptoed to the wall, where Ethan and the rest of the boys waited, awake, to welcome Rothan back for a visit. It was a beautiful reunion, but the part that Kierah remembered the most, was meeting Ethan’s gaze over the heads of the smaller boys as they hugged and smiled and laughed — and seeing the trust in those eyes deepen.
She’d brought his little brother back. There was no doubt in his mind of who she really was, and why she was really there. He believed her.
Chapter 25: Ari’s advice coming Wednesday! We’re in the home stretch 🙂
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“I think you should do it,” Kierah approached Zera. They were eating together during lunch, and Kierah took another swig of her coffee. She’d been feeling more and more sluggish lately, and was hoping the caffeine would kick in before … Continue reading Chapter 23: “Do you think she cares for him? My Ender, for your slave.”