“Come on. I’ll show you.”
Garrett headed down the hall, and I went with him. I’d seen the room where Elora kept her precognitive paintings locked away in the North Wing, and I thought about telling Garrett that. But I hadn’t seen any paintings of me as a child. She’d only had a few of me as a teenager.
He led me all the way down the hall. At the very end, across the hall from my old bedroom, Garrett pushed on a wall. I didn’t understand what he was doing, and then the wall popped out. It was a door built to blend in seamlessly with the walls.
“I didn’t know that was there,” I said in dismay.
“Once you’re Queen, I’ll show you all the secrets of the palace.” Garrett held the door open for me. “And believe me, there are quite a few.”
I stepped through the door to find a small room that’s only purpose was to house a narrow spiral staircase. I glanced back at Garrett, but he gestured for me to go ahead. He stayed a step behind me as I went up the creaking iron stairs.
Before we even reached the top, I could see the paintings. Skylights in the ceiling lit the room, and I stepped onto the hardwood floor. It was small, a hidden attic room with a peaked roof. But the walls were covered with paintings, all of them hung carefully a few inches apart. And all of the paintings were of me.
Elora’s meticulous brushstrokes made them almost look like photographs. They showed me in all stages of my life. At a birthday party when I was young, with cake on my face. A scraped knee when I was three, with Maggie helping me put on a BandAid. At a failed dance recital when I was eight, pulling at my tutu. In my backyard, on the swings, with Matt pushing me. Curled up in my bed, reading It by flashlight when I was twelve. Caught in the rain when I was fifteen, trudging home from school.
“How?” I asked, staring in awe at all the paintings. “How did she do this? Elora told me she couldn’t pick what she saw.”
“She couldn’t, not really,” Garrett said. “She never picked when she saw you, and it took a lot of her energy to focus on you, to see you. But… it was worth it for her. It was the only way she could watch you grow up.”
“It took a lot?” I turned back to him with tears in my eyes. “You mean it aged her a lot.” I gestured to the walls. “This is the reason why she looked fifty when I met her? This is why she died of old age before she even turned forty?”
“Don’t look at it like that, Wendy.” Garrett shook his head. “She loved you, and she needed to see you. She needed to know you were alright. So she painted these. She knew how much it cost her, and she did it gladly.”
For the first time, I really realized what I had lost. I’d had a mother that loved me my entire life, and I hadn’t been able to see her. Even after I met her, I didn’t get to really know her, not until it was too late.
I began to sob, and Garrett came over to me. Somewhat awkwardly, he hugged me, letting me cry on his shoulder.
After I’d gotten it all out, he walked me back down to my room. He apologized for upsetting me, but I was glad he had. I needed to see that, to know about the paintings. I went to bed and tried not to cry myself to sleep.
In the morning, I knew I had much to do, so I rose early and went down to the kitchen to grab breakfast. I only made it as far as the stairs when I heard arguing in the main hall. I stopped and peered down over the railing to see what the fuss was about.
Thomas was talking to his wife, Annali, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Ember. That was Finn’s mom and sister, his family, but Finn wasn’t around. Thomas kept his voice hushed, but Annali was insistent. Ember kept trying to pull away, but Annali had a firm grip on her arm and wouldn’t let her go.
“Thomas, if it’s that dangerous, you and Finn should come with us,” Annali said, staring up at him. “He is my son too, and I don’t want him in harm’s way because of some misplaced sense of duty.”
“It’s not misplaced, Annali,” Thomas sighed. “This is to protect our kingdom.”
“Our kingdom?” Annali scoffed. “What has this kingdom ever done for us? They barely pay you enough to feed our children! I have to raise goats to keep a roof over our head!”
“Annali, hush.” Thomas held his hands up to her. “People will hear you.”
“I don’t care if they hear me!” Annali shouted, raising her voice. “Let them hear me! I hope they banish us! I want them to! Then finally we can be a family instead of being ruled by this awful monarchy!”
“Mom, don’t say that.” Ember squirmed and pulled away from her mother. “I don’t want to be banished. All my friends are here.”
“You’ll make new friends, Ember, but you only have one family,” Annali said.
“Which is exactly why you need to go away,” Thomas said. “It’s not safe here. The Vittra will be coming very soon, and you need to be hidden.”
“I will not go away without you or my son,” Annali said firmly. “I have stood by you through much worse, and I will not lose you now.”
“I will be safe,” Thomas said. “I can fight. So can Finn. You need to protect our daughter. When this is all over, we can go away together, if that’s what you want. I promise you I will leave with you. But right now, you need to take Ember.”
“I don’t want to go!” Ember whined. “I want to help you fight! I’m as strong as Finn!”
“Please,” Thomas begged. “I need you safe.”
“Where do you expect us to go?” Annali asked.
“Your sister is married to a Kanin,” Thomas said. “You can stay with them. Nobody will look for you there.”
“How will I know when you’re safe?” Annali asked.
“I’ll come for you when it’s over,” Thomas said.
“What if you never come?” Annali asked.
“I will come for you,” Thomas said firmly. “Now go. I don’t want you travelling at the same time as the Vittra. They’re not something you want to mess with.”
“Where is Finn?” Annali asked. “I want to say goodbye to him.”
“He’s with the other trackers,” Thomas said. “Go home. Pack your things. I’ll send him down to talk to you.”
“Fine,” Annali said reluctantly. “But when you come for me, you better bring my son with you, alive and intact. If not, you might as well not come at all.”