We reached for each other, and he hurriedly dragged me away.
“Come,” he managed, pulling me along. It felt as if the room would never end, but then my shoulder crashed into the doorframe. Clarkson held my hand, urging me to move forward, but all I wanted to do was rest. “No. Come.”
We moved farther down the hall, and I saw a few other girls there, lying on the floor. Some were gasping for air, and at least two had vomited from the gas.
Clarkson pulled me past the last of the other girls and then we fell to the ground together, gasping in the clean air. There was no way that attack—and I was certain that’s what this was—had lasted more than two or three minutes, but I felt as if I’d run a marathon.
I was lying on my arm in a very painful way, but it took too much effort to change positions. Clarkson wasn’t moving, but I could see his chest rise and fall. A moment later he turned to me.
“Are you all right?”
It took all my strength to answer. “You saved my life.” I paused, gasping. “I love you.”
I’d imagined saying those words plenty of times, but never like that. Still, I couldn’t be bothered to regret it as I drifted off, the sounds of the charging guards echoing in my ears.
There was something stuck to my face when I woke up. I reached and found an oxygen mask, kind of like the one I’d seen after Samantha Rail got caught in that fire.
I turned my head to the right and saw that the desk where the nurse usually sat and the door were practically beside me. In the other direction, nearly every bed in the hospital wing was occupied. I couldn’t tell how many of the girls were here, which made me wonder how many of them were absolutely fine . . . or if any of them didn’t make it.
I tried to sit up, hoping I could see more. And once I was almost upright, Clarkson saw me and walked my way. I didn’t feel too dizzy or short of breath, so I pulled off the mask. He was slow himself, still getting over the effects of the gas. When he finally reached me, he sat on the edge of my bed and spoke quietly.
“How are you feeling?” His voice was like gravel.
“How can . . .” I tried to clear my throat. I sounded strange, too. “How can that matter? I can’t believe you went back in. There are twenty-some-odd versions of me here. There’s only one you.”
Clarkson placed his hand out, asking for me. “You’re not exactly replaceable, Amberly.”
I pressed my lips together, not wanting to cry. The heir to the throne had run into danger for my sake. The feeling that accompanied that knowledge was almost too beautiful to bear.
“Lady Amberly,” Dr. Mission said, sweeping over. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”
“Are the others well?” I asked, my voice so foreign.
He exchanged a quick glance with Clarkson. “On the mend.” They were omitting something, but I’d worry about that later. “You were quite lucky, though. His Highness pulled out five girls, including yourself.”
“Prince Clarkson is brave. I agree. I’m very fortunate.” My hand was still in his, and I gave him a quick squeeze.
“Yes,” Dr. Mission answered, “but forgive me if I ask whether the bravery was warranted.”
We both turned his way, but it was Clarkson who spoke.
“Your Highness,” he replied quietly, “certainly you know your father would disapprove of you devoting so much time to a girl not worthy of you.”
It would have hurt less if he’d hit me.
“The chances of her producing an heir are marginal at best. And you nearly lost your life rescuing her! I’ve yet to report her condition to the king, as I was sure you’d mercifully send her home once you knew. But if this continues, I will have to make him aware.”
There was a long pause before Clarkson answered.
“I believe I heard several of the girls say your hands lingered a little too long as you examined them today,” he said coldly.
The doctor’s eyes squinted. “What do you—”
“And which one was it who said you whispered something very inappropriate in her ear? It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
“But I never—”
“Hardly the point. I’m the prince. My word is above questioning. And if I even hint that you dared to touch my women in any way that wasn’t professional, you might find yourself in front of a firing squad.”
My heart was racing. I wanted to stop him, to tell him no one’s life needed to be threatened over this. Surely, there were other ways to get around the issue. But I knew that now was not the time to speak.
Dr. Mission swallowed as Clarkson continued to speak. “If you value your life at all, then I suggest that you don’t interfere with mine. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Dr. Mission said, throwing in a quick bow for good measure.
“Excellent. Now, is Lady Amberly in good health? Can she go to her room to rest in comfort?”
“I’ll have a nurse check her vitals at once.”
Clarkson waved his arm, and the doctor left.
“Can you believe he had the nerve? I should get rid of him anyway.”
I placed my hand on Clarkson’s chest. “No. No, please don’t hurt him.”
He smiled. “I meant that I’d send him away, find a suitable position for him elsewhere. Many of the governors like having private doctors. He’ll do well in something like that.”
I sighed in relief. So long as no one died.
“Amberly,” he whispered. “Before he told you, did you know you might be unable to have children?”
I shook my head. “I worried. I’ve seen it happen to others where I live. But both my oldest siblings are married, and they have babies. I hoped I would be able to, too.”
My voice hitched, and he hushed me. “Don’t worry about any of that now. I’ll come check on you later. We need to talk.”
He kissed my forehead, there in the hospital wing where anyone could see. All my worries disappeared, if only for the moment.
“I HAVE A SECRET FOR you.”
I awoke to Clarkson whispering in my ear. It was as if my body just knew to respond to him, and I wasn’t even startled. Instead, I was gently stirred by his voice, and it was the sweetest way to wake up in the world.
“Do you?” I rubbed my eyes and looked at his impish smile.
He nodded. “Shall I tell you?” I giggled in reply, and he bent his head again to my ear. “You are going to be the next queen of Illéa.”