She gave me a blank look. “The last one?”
“When you guys thought I was sleeping—you mentioned me being better than the last one. What last one?”
Calliope thought for a moment before realization dawned on her. “Oh! The last one. The last girl, I mean. The last one Henry had here.”
There was another girl? “How long ago was that?”
Calliope exchanged a look with Ella, who remained silent. “Twenty years, maybe?”
So apparently Henry had been a toddler last time. Unless he was telling the truth about ruling the dead, but I wasn’t quite ready to accept that. “Why do I need to be here then? Why isn’t she here anymore?”
“Because she d—”
Ella slapped her hand over Calliope’s mouth so hard that the sound reverberated through the room. “Because she isn’t,” said Ella sharply. “It isn’t our job to explain this to you, Katherine. If you want to know why you’re here, ask Henry. And you…” She glared at Calliope.
“Oh,” I said softly as another thought occurred to me. “He—he said everyone here was dead. Is that true? Are you two…?”
Neither Ella nor Calliope seemed surprised by my question. Instead Ella pulled her hand away, letting Calliope answer.
“Everyone’s dead here, yes,” she said, rubbing her cheek and giving Ella a dirty look. “Or like Henry, never alive in the first place.”
“When were you…uh, born?”
Calliope sniffed. “A lady doesn’t reveal her age.”
Ella snorted, and Calliope glared at her.
“Ella is so old, she doesn’t even know what year she was born,” said Calliope, as if that was something to be ashamed of. I shook my head, speechless, not knowing if I was really supposed to believe all of this or not.
Ella said nothing. Instead she pushed open another door, finally revealing a long room with a table so large it could’ve easily seated thirty. My head was spinning from Calliope’s story, and it took me a moment to realize the room was already filled with people.
“Your court,” said Ella drily. “Servants, tutors, anyone you’ll ever have contact with. They all wanted to meet you.”
I stopped dead in the doorway, feeling the blood drain from my face. There were dozens of pairs of eyes staring at me, and suddenly I was painfully self-conscious.
“Are they going to stay here while I eat?” I whispered. I couldn’t think of a better way of making sure I didn’t eat a thing.
“I can send them away, if you’d like,” said Calliope, and I nodded. She skipped forward and, with two claps of her hands, most of them began to file out. A few who handled the food remained, along with two men standing off to the side, each accessorized with formidable weapons. The tall blond was so still he might as well have been a statue, and the brunette fidgeted, as if standing still and being silent was something he wasn’t very good at. He couldn’t have been older than twenty.
“You will always be guarded,” said Ella, and I looked at her, startled. She must have seen me staring. She moved forward with the grace of a deer and gestured to a place at the foot of the table. “Your seat.”
I followed her, trying hard not to trip on the hem of my long dress, and sat down. Now there were only about a dozen people in the room, but they were still all looking at me.
“Your breakfast, Your Highness,” said a man, stepping forward to set a covered plate in front of me. Ella lifted the cover, not giving me the chance to do so myself. She looked as bored as she had in my room.
“Um, thanks,” I said, bewildered. Your Highness? I picked up a fork, prepared to spear a piece of fruit and eat it, but a pale hand snatched my wrist before I could do it.
I looked up, surprised to see Calliope standing over me, her blue eyes wide. “I taste first,” she insisted. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Shocked, I blurted, “You test my food?”
“When you decide to eat, yes,” she said timidly. “I tested your dinner last night, too. But you don’t have to eat while you’re here, you know. Eventually you’ll forget what it feels like. If you want to though, I have to—”
“No,” I said, pushing my chair back so loudly it squealed against the marble floor. The stress of the day before and the confusion of that morning came crashing down on me, shattering every last bit of self-control I had. “No, this isn’t going to happen. It’s ridiculous—food tasters? Armed guards? Your Highness? Why? What am I supposed to be doing here?”
Everyone seemed stunned by my outburst, and it was several moments before anyone spoke. When they did, it was Ella. “You agreed to stay here for six months out of the year, yes?”
“Yes,” I said, frustrated. They didn’t understand. “But I didn’t agree to food tasters or—or any of this.”
“You did,” she said calmly. “It’s part of the deal.”
No one answered me. I clenched my skirt so tightly that I thought it would rip. “Let me see Henry,” I said. “I want to talk to him.”
The silence was deafening, and something inside of me snapped.
“Let me talk to him!”
The sound of his voice, low and smooth, startled me. Whirling around, I managed to lose my balance, barely catching myself on the chair. Henry stood in front of me, much closer than I’d expected. His young and flawless face was blank, and my heart skipped a beat. When I managed to regain my voice, it came out as more of a squeak, but I didn’t care. I wanted answers.