“I claim Miss Kielland for the next round. You can have the captain,” the third guard said.
“Having a change of heart about partners, Foss?” Gemma’s card partner asked.
“You betcha. I didn’t think I would have to carry Captain through the whole game,” the guard said.
“Might I remind you, Foss, that I’m the one who will be writing your recommendation—or demotion—to the Guard Lieutenant?” the captain said.
“Yes, sir!” Foss said with a salute, drawing an amused, arched eyebrow from Gemma.
“She looks fine,” Prince Toril whispered in Lady Linnea’s ear. “She’s just playing Karn?ffel—and doing well, I think. Lady Linnea!” he hissed when Lady Linnea sank to the ground, relief making her light-headed.
“I’m fine. I just,” Lady Linnea couldn’t continue and instead shut her eyes and rested her head against the grimy dungeon wall.
“She’s safe,” Prince Toril said.
“Yes,” Lady Linnea smiled. “She is.”
After a moment Prince Toril asked, “Are you strong enough to stand? I would prefer to not let them know we are here,” he said, tipping his head in the direction of the chattering card game.
“I can manage,” Lady Linnea said, standing. Her legs shook like a newborn foal, but she brushed off her dress—which was dirtied beyond repair—and heaved her chin up, regaining some of her confidence.
“May I escort you out?” Prince Toril asked, offering his arm.
Lady Linnea took it with the composure of a queen and allowed Prince Toril to lead her up the dungeon stairs.
“I find it refreshing that you care so much about your servant,” Prince Toril said, breaking the silence when they returned to the palace hallways. “She is lucky to have such a caring mistress.”
“She is my close companion,” Lady Linnea said.
“Yes, because you allow her to be so,” Prince Toril said.
“Wait, you think that this is just a case of me being kind to a servant because I am a loyal person?”
“Yes?” Prince Toril said.
“Huh. I’m beginning to see why you didn’t go after Princess Elise,” Lady Linnea said, dropping Prince Toril’s arm.
“What do you mean?” Prince Toril asked.
“I don’t think you understand the balance of relationships. They are give-and-take. I’m not Gemma’s superior in our friendship because I’m trying to get her through this alive—which is rather what I suspect you think. I’m frantic to protect her, yes, not because I’m some bleeding-heart noble, but because Gemma is my best friend,” Lady Linnea firmly said. “Gemma has my loyalty because she’s earned it, and I have Gemma’s trust because I’ve earned it.”
“But surely you have more to give,” Prince Toril said.
“You would think that, and perhaps that is the circumstance right now, but before I felt like I could never repay Gemma for everything she’s done for me,” Lady Linnea said. She tilted her head and studied Prince Toril with pursed lips. “It takes work to build a lasting relationship, My Lord. You cannot expect someone to give you their everything just because.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Prince Toril said.
“I’m not surprised, looking at your sparkling parentage,” Lady Linnea said, stopping their stroll down the hallway. “Allow me to rephrase it. A friendship is filled only with as much love as you give. Gemma has my heart because I chose to give it to her. And my choice paid off, because there is no one in this horrible, tattered world that I trust more than Gemma Kielland. And so we are two best friends, walking together to achieve what neither of us could do alone. Do you understand it now?”
Prince Toril wore a very sad smile, one that pained Lady Linnea to see on the normally sunny—if not slightly dopey—prince’s face. “Princess Elise said something similar to me, once.”
“She said she wasn’t the only woman capable of deep love, and that before I found such a woman who would love me like that, I had to learn how to give that kind of love, too,” Prince Toril said. “She meant the give-and-take loyalty you’re talking about, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” Lady Linnea said.
“I see it, now,” Prince Toril said, looking up at the ceiling. “You have given me much to think about, Lady Linnea,” he said when he finally lowered his gaze.
“I am glad. I would rather have you learn about it now, Toril, than to continue in ignorance,” Lady Linnea said.
“Yes. I think so, too…” Prince Toril trailed off before he shook himself, putting a smile back on his face. “In any case, I will show you a way out. I have an appointment with a Farset ambassador that I will be late for if I do not hurry. This way.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“I’ve brought your lunch, Miss Kielland,” B?rres said, setting her tray down. “Meatcakes, carrots, and potatoes.”
“Thank you, B?rres,” Gemma said, smiling at the guard.