“Did you even stop to think if she had a family? Hmm? Did that ever cross your mind?”
“Onaje’, I saw her home. It was a . . . a hut. Nothing more. You could barely fit two, maybe three people inside. Her brother was dead. She had no one.” Caerus rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable and annoyed at the situation. He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, looking over Onaje’s shoulder to where the little girl lay asleep on his bed.
“So you just decided to bring her here, hmm? Prince Caerus’ little project, hmm? Hmm? Did you stop to think what the King would say?”
Caerus wished Onaje’ would stop saying “hmm.” He rubbed his temples and strode away from the wall, pacing around the room. He wasn’t sure why he had decided to bring the girl to the palace. He couldn’t exactly leave her alone in the woods. And she had reminded him of someone, of another little girl he had met years and years ago . . . He scowled and clenched his jaw.
“Keona,” the girl murmured in her sleep, turning onto her side.
“There! There!” Onaje’ sputtered, practically turning purple. He waved his hand wildly in the direction of the girl, his robe flapping “Do you mind telling me who this ‘Keona’ is, hmm? For all you know, you just took this child from her mother! Straight from the arms of her loving mother!”
“What child calls her mother by her first name, Onaje’?” Caerus said curtly. “Whoever Keona is, she’s not the girl’s mother.”
“Older sister, then, I don’t know! I don’t care. Obviously she knows someone. Obviously she had a life outside the palace. Do you know what you’ve done by bringing her here? Do you know what they’re going to do to her? They’re going to put her in the harem. I assure you, she won’t be a virgin by the end of the ni—”
“Alright, alright, Onaje’.” Caerus ran his hands over his head and collapsed into a chair. He pounded his fist against his forehead steadily, scowling.
“Well,” Onaje’ said after Caerus didn’t speak for several moments. “She’s in perfect health, except for being malnourished, of course. If you don’t mind, I have other patients to attend to.”
“Thank you, Onaje’,” Caerus said quietly.
Onaje’s expression softened slightly.
“I understand your intentions were good, Caerus,” he said. “But you must return her. You can’t keep her here all night. Imagine the scandal if the public found out you spent the night with a seven-year-old girl.”
Caerus gave Onaje’ an annoyed look. Onaje’ raised both hands in surrender.
“I know how ridiculous it is, but the people will think what they want. She must be sent back.”
“I know,” Caerus said miserably.
“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Onaje’ strode out of the room. Caerus sat for several moments in brooding silence, staring at his hands. When he finally looked up, the girl was awake and peering at him with large brown eyes.
“Where’s Exi?” the girl whimpered.
Caerus felt his heart plummet.
“He’s away for a while,” he said firmly. “Listen, I need to go run an errand and I need you to stay here. Promise not to move from that bed?”
She nodded. Caerus looked at her distrustfully.
“Just remember, don’t move.”
He left the room, closing the door firmly behind him. After a moment’s hesitation, he locked the door. If she didn’t leave the bed like he said, she would never know.
He walked briskly through the palace towards the harem until he reached Dreeza’s quarters. He looked in but she wasn’t there. He turned to leave.
“What are you doing here, Caerus? Want me back already?” Dreeza’s voice was sugary sweet as she came up behind him. She fanned herself lazily with a spread of peacock feathers. She strolled up to him slowly. Her makeup was smeared and the shoulder of her dress had slipped down her arm.
“You’ve been busy,” Caerus said coldly.
“Don’t you wish it was you?” Dreeza sneered. She brushed past him into her quarters. “What do you want, Caerus?”
“I have a favor to ask.”
“O-ho, Mr. High and Mighty. Now you have a favor to ask. Tell, why on earth should I help you?”
“There’s a little girl,” Caerus said, ignoring her. “She needs a place to stay for the night. A safe place with no . . . no . . .”
“I understand.” Dreeza smirked. “You really think this is a good place?”
Dreeza cocked her head at him. Caerus stepped forward, running two fingers down her arm.
“I would greatly appreciate it,” he said huskily.
Dreeza merely looked at him, but he saw something in her eyes that he grabbed hold of.
“Please, Dreeza.” He leaned in and let his breath fan across her face. He felt her weakening. He took a few more steps forward and she stepped back until they stood against the wall. He slid his hands down her back and looked at her intently. “Please. Just for one night.”
“Fine,” she breathed. “But just one night.”
“Thank you,” he said, relieved, kissing her. “I’ll bring her down in a bit.”
Dreeza looked at him sourly as he turned to go.
“You manipulate people, Caerus,” she said. “You? Marry for love? Ha! Look at how you manipulate me. What would you do to your wife I wonder?”
Caerus ignored her and hurried away. He brought the girl down a few minutes later after explaining what he could to her.
“You’re going to go home tomorrow, OK?”
“I can see Keona?”
“Yes . . . yes, you can see Keona.”
Caerus desperately hoped that this Keona existed, and if she did, that she was still alive.