“Well said, Lady Amberly.” Gavril smiled and moved on to another question.
I didn’t look at the queen. Instead, I focused on sitting upright as the stab of another headache started in. Maybe they were caused by stress? But if that was the case, then why did I get them for no reason at all sometimes?
I noted on the monitors that the cameras were not focused on me or even my row, so I allowed myself a tentative brush of my forehead. Of all the things, I could tell my hands were getting softer. I wanted to prop my head up on my arm completely, but that wasn’t possible. Even if the rudeness would have been forgiven, the dress wouldn’t allow me to bend that way.
I pulled myself up, focusing my breathing. The steady ache was growing, but I willed myself to stay upright. I’d worked through feeling sick before, and under much worse conditions. This is nothing, I told myself. All I have to do is sit.
The questions seemed to last forever, though I didn’t think Gavril had spoken to all the girls. Eventually, the cameras stopped rolling. I remembered then that I wasn’t quite finished. There was still dinner before I could go back to my room, and that usually lasted about an hour.
“Are you all right?” Madeline asked.
I nodded. “Tired probably.”
We turned our heads to the sound of laughter. Prince Clarkson was talking to some of the girls in the front row.
“I like his hair tonight,” Madeline commented.
He held up a finger to the ladies he had been speaking to and circled around the crowd, his eyes on me. I made a small curtsy when he approached, and as I stood, I felt his hand go around my back, binding us together and keeping our faces from the others.
“Are you sick?”
I sighed. “I tried to hide it. My head is throbbing. I just need to lie down.”
“Take my arm.” He held out his elbow for me, and I wrapped my hand around it. “Smile.”
I lifted my lips. Despite the discomfort, it was easier with him there.
“Very generous of you to grace me with your presence,” he said, just loud enough so the girls we were standing by could hear. “I’m trying to remember what dessert it is you like best.”
I didn’t answer but continued to look happy as we exited the studio. I let my smile drop once we were out the doorway, and when we reached the end of the hallway, Clarkson scooped me up.
“Let’s get you to the doctor.”
I clenched my eyes together. I was getting nauseated again, and my whole body was starting to feel clammy. But I felt more comfortable in his arms than I would have on a chair or bed. Even with all the swaying, being curled up with my head on his shoulder felt like the best thing in the world.
A new nurse was in the hospital wing, but she was just as kind as she helped Clarkson get me into a bed, with my legs propped up on a pillow.
“The doctor is sleeping,” she said. “He was up all last night and most of the day with two different maids, helping them deliver. Two boys back-to-back! Only fifteen minutes apart.”
I smiled at the happy news. “There’s no need to disturb him,” I told her. “It’s only a headache, and it’ll pass.”
“Nonsense,” Clarkson replied. “Send for a maid and have our dinners brought here. We’ll wait for Dr. Mission.”
The nurse nodded and headed off.
“You didn’t need to do that,” I whispered. “He’s had a rough night, and I’ll be fine.”
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure you were properly taken care of.”
In my head I tried to turn those words into something romantic, but it sounded more as if he felt obligated. Still, if he had wanted to, he could have gone to eat with the others. Instead, he chose to stay with me.
I picked at my dinner, not wanting to be rude, but my head was still making me feel sick. The nurse brought some medicine for me, and by the time Dr. Mission showed up, his hair slick from a shower, I felt much better. The throbbing was more like a tiny pulse than a ringing bell.
“I’m sorry for the delay, Your Highness,” he said with a bow.
“It’s no problem,” Prince Clarkson replied. “We’ve been enjoying a lovely meal in your absence.”
“How is your head, miss?” Dr. Mission took my wrist in his fingers to check my pulse.
“Much better. The nurse gave me some medicine, and that did a world of good.”
He pulled out a little light and shone it into my eyes. “Maybe you should take something daily. I know you try to fix them once they start, but we might be able to stop them from happening. Nothing for certain, but I’ll see what I can get you.”
“Thank you.” I folded my arms over my lap. “How are the babies?”
The doctor beamed. “Absolutely perfect. Healthy and fat.”
I smiled, thinking of the two new lives that started in the palace today. Would they be best friends, maybe? And grow up telling everyone the story about how they were born so close to each other?
“Speaking of babies, I wanted to discuss some of the results of your physical.”
All humor left my face, left my whole body. I sat up straighter, bracing myself. I could read in his expression that I was about to be sentenced to something.
“Your tests show several different toxins in your bloodstream. If they’re showing up this heavily after weeks of being out of your home province, my guess is that the levels were much higher when you were there. Now, for some people this wouldn’t be an issue. The body responds, adjusts, and can live without any side effects whatsoever. Based on what you told me about your family, I would say two of your siblings are doing just that.
“But one of your sisters gets nosebleeds, correct?”
“And you get constant headaches?”
I nodded again.
“I suspect your body is not taking these toxins in stride. Between the tests and some of the more personal things you’ve told me, I think these bouts of tiredness, nausea, and pain will continue, probably for the rest of your life.”
I sighed. Well, that wasn’t worse than what I was experiencing now. And at least Clarkson didn’t seem bothered by my condition.
“I also have reasons to be concerned about your reproductive health.”
I stared at him, wide-eyed. In my periphery, I noticed Clarkson shift in his seat.
“But . . . but why? My mother had four children. And she and my father both came from large families. I just get tired, that’s all.”
Dr. Mission remained composed, clinical, as if he wasn’t discussing the most personal parts of my life. “Yes, and while genetics help, based on the tests, it seems that your body would be . . . an unfavorable habitat for a fetus. And any child you might conceive”—he paused, flitted his eyes toward the prince before looking back at me—“might be unfit for . . . certain tasks.”