She felt someone fingers at her wrist first, and opened her eyes second. The familiar ceiling of her quarters came into focus. Which meant…
"Well, look who's finally decided to join the living."
Jeanne pushed herself up and looked over to see Malina seated at her side. She put a hand to her head. "What happened?"
"You terrified Miss Nicanti and passed out in your office. You've been asleep for a few hours now." Malina picked up her notebook and scribbled something down. "I wasn't expecting you to react like that, but it's good information nonetheless."
"Wait, what time is it?" Jeanne looked around. The curtains to her windows were drawn.
"Around dinner." Malina didn't look up.
Her eyes widened. "I've been asleep all day?"
"Well, yes." Malina finally put down the notebook. She arched one eyebrow. "And you need to rest. I'll have someone bring you food."
"Wait, wait. What happened to Alveara? Where is she?" Jeanne bit her lip. Gods but her head ached.
"Oh, she's convinced she's getting fired. First you run off and then you faint, all while under her protection. She insisted on guarding your room, but Alain's got one of the others out there too. Said she's not trustworthy." Malina shrugged. "I don't know the details."
Jeanne started to get up. "None of that is her fault!"
"I said, you need to rest." Malina gripped Jeanne's shoulder and pushed her back against the bed. "I'll get her."
As soon as Malina's back was turned, Jeanne sat up again. She pulled her knees to her chest and realized someone had changed her into her nightclothes. Probably the maids. The thought that it was Alveara flashed through her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut. No, no, that was impossible, Alveara wouldn't have dared. And yet…
She looked up to see the woman in question. "Sit down." Jeanne gestured to the chair Malina left behind.
Alveara did so. She shifted, looking down at her lap. Her hands fidgeted. "I am so, so sorry. Please, just give me another chance. I promise I can make up for this. I accept whatever punishment you decide to give me, but please, let me prove myself to you." She bowed her head, her chestnut hair falling into her face. "I'll do better, I swear it."
"You're not in trouble." Jeanne reached out to touch her shoulder but pulled her hand back. "I wanted to make sure you're all right."
"M-me?" Here Alveara snapped her head up. "You're the one that fainted, not me!"
"I know. And I should have told you what was going on. This is my doing, not yours." Jeanne took a deep breath and looked away. "The last few days have been unusual for me. I don't normally rush out without a word, nor do I typically collapse in my study. This hasn't been a good introduction to palace life for you and for that I apologize. Truly."
Alveara blinked rapidly. Her eyes flickered around the room as if she wasn't sure what to look at. "Your Highness…"
"You aren't going to lose your job."
"I'm not?" She brightened.
"No. You've done nothing wrong." Jeanne gazed at her. She took another breath. "The reality is that Malina—Dr. Belfiore—is administering small doses of poison to me so I can build up something of a resistance to them. And I don't always know how it will affect me. Sometimes I may pass out like I did today, or I might be violently ill. It varies."
Alveara's brow furrowed. "Is that…normal?"
"Not really. It's not unheard of for royalty to take poisons like this, but for me it's more of a way of survival. Do you know why you and the others were hired to guard me?"
"Mr. Gregoras said that you needed guards. He didn't really go into detail." Alveara rubbed the back of her neck.
"I see." Jeanne leaned back on her palms and looked at the ceiling. "The truth of the matter is that the same assassin group that murdered my father is after me now. They have been, on and off, for the past five years. But recently they've gotten bolder in their attacks. Last month I was at dinner when I realized someone slipped poison into my wine; it didn't kill me, obviously, but that was a sign to the Council that I need someone watching me all the time."
Alveara remained silent. Jeanne glanced at her, seeing the woman's grey eyes shone in concern. "I'm fine. I'm hard to kill."
"I didn't… I didn't know any of this…" Alveara's voice was soft.
"Not many outside the palace do. It's not good publicity if the people find out that someone's after me. But I want you to be prepared for if something like this happens again. It's not your fault. You're doing everything you're supposed to do." Jeanne sighed, her chest rising and falling. "That's why I'm not really allowed to leave the palace, or the grounds. Guarding me is dangerous. You might be killed doing it."
Jeanne stared at her. "You know? And you're still willing to do this?"
"Back home, I was captain of the guard. Every day was dangerous. So for me, this isn't much different. But instead of guarding the village, I just have to worry about one person." Alveara gave a small smile. "We all die someday, don't we? So I might as well die doing something honorable."
"But you shouldn't have to die!" Jeanne clenched her fist around her sheets. "I don't want anyone to die for me!"
"Your Highness, I don't mind."
"But I do!" Jeanne turned to her. "I don't want you, or Derrick, or even Kalen to put your lives on the line for me. I've seen enough death and I don't want anyone else to die. Especially not for someone—for me." She clenched her jaw so hard her teeth hurt. "It's not fair to you that I could be the reason you die."
Alveara was silent. She swallowed hard, still sitting uncomfortably straight in the chair. "I… I'm not sure…"
Jeanne took a moment to calm herself. "Anyway. You're not losing your position and you're not in trouble for anything that's happened. I'll do my best not to worry you in the future."
"I'm sorry," Alveara whispered.
"I'm sorry. That you have to do this. I didn't know things were this bad." Alveara flickered her gaze up before focusing on something on the floor. "I always thought, you know, that living here in the palace was easy."
Jeanne chuckled. "In many ways, it is. Like Alain said. Such is the life of a royal."
Alveara stood and put a hand to her chest in a salute. "I promise I'll do my best not to die, Your Highness."
"And I promise not to do anything that'll get you killed." Jeanne returned the gesture weakly. "You're free to go, if you wish. That's all I wanted to say."
She gave a nod and turned to go.
Jeanne fell back against the pillows once the door shut behind her. She stared at the ceiling. It wasn't fair, not really. To put so many people in danger just to keep one person, her, safe. Especially when she didn't even feel she deserved it.
Her mind turned to thoughts of her father. Perhaps if he hadn't been killed that night so long ago then there wouldn't have been any need to hire guards. If he were still living, she could come and go as she pleased. If he were still living, she wouldn't have to do so much, or deal with the Council, or practically anything else she'd become accustomed to in the last five years.
The image of his body in her arms flashed through her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut against it. It was bad enough she relived that night in her dreams; no reason to live through it again now.
She turned on her side. It really wasn't fair at all.