Mel continued her praise of the Princess all through the passageways of the castle, only stopping to lower her voice when a very irritable woman appeared from a closed room in her nightgown, shouting something about ‘wicked children’ and how, back in her day, she would never have dreamed of bellowing through the castle in the dead of night. Dawn had gathered enough of her senses to supply the woman with a very reasonable apology, to which the grumpy duchess bowed curtly and retreated back into her chambers. When they arrived at the Princess’ room, Mel flashed Dawn an enormous grin, pecked her on the cheek, and vanished into the night. Dawn stood, bewildered for a moment, staring after the Chief Medical Examiner before opening her door and disappearing into the room beyond.
Her chambers were pleasantly warm and bright for how late it was. Candles sat in wrought iron decorations all around while a fire sputtered in the fireplace, their combined light illuminating every corner of the room. Her bed was made up with sheets and blankets of the same scarlet and maroon as her robes, and was hung with a great sheer cloth draped over its four tall posts. Dawn was sorely tempted to collapse straight away and let the tide of sleep drag her off, but something caught her eye.
Through a set of pale curtains sat two tall doors holding two large panes of glass. The doors led out to the Princess’ private balcony which overlooked the endless forest beyond and should, at the present moment, be empty. But the slight, dark shape she could see through the glass told Dawn that tonight, this was not the case. She crept slowly out of sight of the door and pushed her back to the wall, carefully making her way to the would-be intruder. When at last she reached the curtains she leaned forward, careful not to poke more than her eye into view, and smiled.
“Are you going to ask me in?” Eryn yelled, her voice muffled by the thickness of the barrier between them. Dawn wrenched open the door and, after a rushed hug, spoke.
“I guess this means your mom eased up, huh?”
“No,” Eryn retorted, shivering slightly and moving toward the fire. “She still says I can’t goof off with you, but she told me I could see you when my ‘duties permitted’.” Eryn made a sour face, rubbing her hands together before holding them out to the fire.
“Listen, Eryn,” Dawn mumbled, nervously, “about what happened this morning…”
Eryn shook her head and grinned.
“Dawn, if you always played it safe you would have the most boring life ever. Just try not to always drag me into your trouble, okay?”
Dawn laughed, glad to have her best friend back. She nodded her agreement and pushed her two plush, high-backed chairs closer to the fire, offering one to Eryn, before taking her seat and staring into the dancing flames.
“So, where were you at dinner?” Eryn inquired, leaning back in her chair. “I was on wait staff this evening. The King and Queen were both there, as well as all the council members. Not that you missed much of anything. They just talked about ‘preventative measures’ and some new position in the castle. The chief em-something-or-other.”
“The Chief Medical Examiner,” Dawn supplied, chuckling. “Yeah, my mom named her today. She’s the physician who looked at my head when I fell. Mel, that’s her name-” Dawn offered, noticing Eryn’s confused look, “-she’s really smart. And way cooler than you would think.”
“Is that where you were then? With her?” Eryn asked icily.
“Yes,” Dawn replied, slightly taken aback by Eryn’s fierce change in tone, “I was. We were working in her lab. She’s trying to find a cure for a sleeping sickness that seems to be popping up in the village now.”
“A sleeping sickness?” Eryn gasped, her voice regaining its normally curious air. “What are you talking about?”
Dawn explained all about her morning adventures. She told Eryn of her and Mel’s carriage ride to the palace, her lessons, cut short by her mother’s secreted conversation, her journey to see the laboratory that Mel would be working in, her telling off of Sir Emery and, finally, her exciting yet confusing discovery in the lab that she still had no idea what to make of. Eryn’s face rose and fell with each development. She even burst out laughing as Dawn recounted Sir Emery’s pitiful advances on the all too disinterested Chief Medical Examiner. By the end of their conversation, Eryn was nodding off sleepily and Dawn, though slightly more alert, was finding the call of her comforter almost irresistible.
“So, this black gunk,” Eryn yawned, shaking her head forcefully, “this spreads the sickness, does it?”
“That’s what it looks like, anyway,” Dawn said, catching Eryn’s yawn and mirroring the same long sound.
“Maybe Mel can just scrape it all out and that will stop it!” Eryn supplied. “Could even wake up if that stuff isn’t plugging them up anymore, couldn’t they?”
Dawn sat bolt upright. Was that why Mel had been so excited? Could it be as simple as just getting rid of the tar that coated their mouths and noses? Dawn felt her excitement build once more as she spoke.
“That’s brilliant!” Dawn crowed. “What if that’s it? We would be heroes!”
Eryn considered the idea a moment before lifting her shoulders in a dismissive shrug.
“Somehow, I don’t think it’s that easy,” Eryn replied. “Blowing your nose never stops a cold, after all.”
Dawn shrank back into her chair. Eryn was right, of course. If it was that easy surely someone would have done it by now. Then she remembered the samples sitting, sealed, inside the lab. Someone had already done that and yet the sleeping sickness still endured. Confusion once again swam over Dawn as she thought about what could possibly have excited Mel so much. Thankfully, Eryn interrupted her musings by rising to her feet.
“Well, time for bed!” Eryn sang, steadying herself against the ornate chair she had been seated in. “You too, Princess. Busy day tomorrow. And if anybody asks, you lost your necklace and needed help finding it.”
Dawn’s hand flew unconsciously to her neck, checking that the silver chain she always wore was still there. It had been a gift from her mother on her fourteenth birthday and bore a pendant with a moderately sized diamond set in the center of the royal crest. She looked at Eryn, alarmed by the thought of losing the ancient necklace. Then she remembered Eryn’s mention of only being able to see the Princess for official duties.
“Do you think your mom would really buy that?” Dawn asked.
“No, but I’m banking on not needing the excuse. When I left she was snoring so loud, you might have thought I had a dragon for a mother.”
“And you’re positive you don’t?” Dawn jibbed.
“Well, she is the only one who can get the stoves going on the first try…”
The girls giggled a moment, imagining Eryn’s mother as some great winged, scaly beast. Then Dawn rose and opened the door for her shuffling friend before climbing under the covers to sleep. As she drifted off, her mind wandered through all the possibilities the next day might hold and happiness painted her relaxing features. Nothing, she thought, would stand between her and the cure tomorrow.
* * *
Mel made her way through the darkened palace as quietly as a mouse. Shadowed doorways and poorly lit passages vanished as she descended from the Princess’ bedroom to her own cot made up warmly in her laboratory. She traveled quickly, pausing only to open her door before stepping into her room. Candles flickered silently on the desk and in the candelabras set in the walls. She slowly made her way around, snuffing out the light until everything was cast into darkness. She crossed to her mattress, threw back the covers, and climbed quietly into bed.
“Moving up in the world, are we?”
Mel froze halfway between the floor and the cot. She turned to face the voice knowing all to well what to expect. There, barely visible in the corner, was a woman with long black hair, a long black dress, and long black nails.
“Lady Nerezza,” Mel intoned quietly.
“I see we haven’t forgotten one another yet, have we?” the velvet voice asked. A breeze caressed Mel’s face and she shuttered slightly. “I hope my appearance hasn’t put you off your sleep.”
“Of course not,” Mel replied, sitting herself on the edge of her bed. “I have done as you instructed. The vial that was emptied into the well has begun its work. They now fear the sleeping sickness more than all else.”
“Excellent,” the shadowy woman purred, “now fix it.”
A sinister smile crept across the Lady Nerezza’s face, and she spoke once more.
“I need you to win their trust. Your performance with the Princess has been most rewarding, but it will not be enough. Fix their little plague, but do it carefully. If they should suspect anything, I will see no need to reward you.”
“It will be done.”
“Perfect,” the Lady Nerezza murmured. “And one more thing. Since you are proving so useful, I have one more task. I have need of a certain jewel in the possession of their Queen…”