Innogen Samestra Ur, Queen of Andrese and High Regent of the Holds of Loranya, had dreamed of the return of her old lover. In the dream she had been so very weak before him, fawning over him and behaving like a foolish young girl. She was so angry with herself that she had pierced her own flesh with her fingernails from clenching her fist so tightly. It had the desired effect of awakening her, but her mood was dark.
“Oh, my queen,” Nora was the only one of the queen’s handmaids bold enough to speak before being spoken to. “You’ve been marked by Dreamer.” Nora wiped the queen’s palm revealing the four red crescents her fingernails had cut into the flesh there.
“I am in no mood for your nonsense,” Innogen said, pulling her hand away.
“Beg pardon, your grace,” Nora said with a perfect curtsy.
Innogen let the girl brush her fiery hair and clean her body with a warm rag; activities which usually had such a calming effect on the queen did nothing but give her more time to think on the dream.
Her mood grew darker.
Nora attempted to dress her in the simple white that she would wear on her way to the Balnea.
“I will not bathe this morning,” Innogen said.
“You must, my queen,” Nora said, shaking the gown in front of her as if that would cause the queen to leap into it. “It is custom. You must keep the favour of your ladies.”
“I know it is custom,” the queen snarled, snatching the gown from the girl and throwing it to the ground. She sat naked in her chair, arms and legs crossed, face turned away.
Every morning she delivered herself into the Balnea where her ladies-in-waiting, one noble daughter or granddaughter from each hold, had the privilege to wash her. She in turn helped to wash each of them. In this way the queen was supposed to grow close to her people, thus strengthening the ties between the holds.
But she knew that it did nothing. The holds were slipping from her grasp faster than she could count and no amount of bathing with the daughters of nobility was going to stop it.
Nora knelt to pick up the gown and remained there to look up at the queen.
“Innogen,” she whispered.
“You grow too bold,” the queen said, but she turned to look at the girl. Only a fool girl from the Spine Peaks would dare to look her queen in the eye. Innogen did not want to admit it, but she admired the girl for her boldness.
“Wine,” she demanded. Nora moved to the sideboard and poured from a pitcher of white. Innogen drank deep from the cup, sweetness mingled with the bitter greenwood and the warmth of the medicinal seemed to calm her roiling emotions. When the cup was drained she allowed herself to be clothed and taken to the baths.
Innogen had picked each of her ladies-in-waiting very carefully. Each was a firstborn daughter or else an heir, and in this way she held the future of each Hold close to her. What infuriated her the most was that though there were ten holds in Loranya, eleven including Andrese, she had only nine ladies, thus her grasp upon the nobility was incomplete. It could not be helped that House Lentinan’s daughter’s had all died, or that Lentinan’s grandchildren were all male, but to Innogen it seemed a slap in the face from the very gods. Every morning she had to withstand this constant gaping reminder and it only fuelled her already poor mood. She wanted to scream.
Instead she tried to relax as the women held her in the water and washed her. She thought about the dream, about the man that she had loved. He had been the only man she’d ever loved. Neither her late husband, nor her current lover could compare. But he had been a damned fool, for he had hurt her deeply, and at that thought she became rigid with anger.
“Did that hurt, your grace?” Lady Nyta asked. The queen only waved a hand in response and tried to relax. This was the other thing she hated about the morning bath. She could hide nothing when she was naked in the arms of these women.
Her thoughts returned to her lover and she tried to stay relaxed when she thought of how he had left her. These same thoughts had run through her mind so many times. It was his fault she had been forced to marry that fool Hanesca. His fault she had been forced to give up her control of Loranya to the king, and his fault that she had lost her grip now. She breathed a great sigh as the women finished and she stood to wash them. It did not matter. He was gone. She would never see him again and that would have to do. She had never thought that she could not go on without him, she was the Red Hawk of Ur, Queen of Andrese, the most powerful woman in the land, she could do anything. No, it was not that, just...
No, she would not admit to missing him, not for all the pain he caused her. Only that things might be different, perhaps better. She shook her head. He is dead, she told herself. It is better that he is dead.
Nora combed the queen’s hair again, hid it’s fiery glory beneath a black cap, arranged the veil atop her head and pinned it up with opals and fire-stones. She settled the heavy golden crown of hawks upon the top of it all.
Another fortnight of mourning her late husband and then she could return to bright colour and life. But now she was the bride of death, and the damned veil clouded her vision like the dark cloud of her mood. Her dress was grave-shadow black, which made her skin so pale she looked ill. She hated black. She hated mourning. She hated Hanesca for dying and leaving her in this mess. Nora anointed her lips from a pot of deep red oil.
“Gods,” she cried, slapping the girl’s hand away. “I look like a death doll.”
“Beg pardon, your grace,” Nora said, curtsying.
“Wine, Nora,” Innogen said, she was already starting to lose the feeling from the first glass. She took the second in one quick draught, picked up her heavy sceptre and joined her ladies in the hall.
“You look as beautiful as a spring morning, my queen,” Lady Nyta said, with a slight bow.
“Don’t be a fool,” Innogen said, moving down the hall without waiting. They would follow. That was the only task they need perform. “My skin is pale as a ghost, my lips red as blood and my dress black as a grave. Death is not beautiful. It is a waste of my time.”
He ran. As hard and as fast as he ever had and for every inch he gained hope seemed to blossom in his chest. He could hear Iridian, now bellowing out orders, could hear his heavy footfalls on the stone behind him. Cab raced up stone steps, clutching the wall to steady himself. Gods, how long had he been without food? How could he even find the energy to run? The pain in his body had evaporated the moment he flew out of that cage but it was trying to force its way back to the forefront of his mind. His cracked ribs ached with every breath. Don’t think about it. Just get to the top of the stairs. He stilled a bout of coughing that would have done for him and leaped up the last few steps and out into a hallway. He did not stop to gain his bearings. He knew the castle, knew there was a way out just up-
He crashed headlong into a servant who had not been paying attention. They tumbled to the floor. The man was stunned, the wind knocked out of him, but still he slapped at his attacker in fear. Cab had landed poorly, and all his weight came down upon a wrist that could not hold him. Even the servant heard the snap as it broke. It was like running headlong into a wall. Cab gasped, but did not have time for anything more. Iridian and Kiret, both bloody faced, appeared at the end of the hall.
“Stop that man!” Iridian cried. The servant attempted a weak hold on Cab, but he pulled easily away and took off once more down the hall, cradling his broken wrist against his body. Just a little farther and there was a door that led into the courtyard.
In front of it was the other guard, hand on the hilt of his sword, and the Serenity.
Cab changed course, leaped down a side hall. But the other guard was fast behind him. His sword sheathed, he reached out to grab...
Cab lifted up his elbow and stopped dead. The guard could not stop in time and ran headlong into the trap. Another crunched nose and he hit the floor on his back, wailing and thrashing. Cab leaped over the man and took off again. The end of the hall was near. He would have to change direction. Which way, which way? He couldn’t remember. His head was spinning. He came to the end of the hall and tripped on nothing, fell hard into the wall. His wrist, his ribs, his body were swearing and cursing at him. He could not see straight. Every breath he gulped was like a battering ram in the chest. This was it. The end had come. At long last.
Her eyes were a violet shade of blue, promising only violence. She had climbed in through the window on the second story to get to him as he slept. To avoid his father. But his father had pushed him hard today and Cab did not wake until she sat upon his chest, like the Night Mara. Those eyes burned and his first thought upon waking was a fearful one. She knew it.
“I can feel your heart racing,” she said, voice barely a whisper. He tried to suck in a breath, but she pushed her knees into his chest further. A wicked smile split her face. He moved to push her off and noticed for the first time the small blade cool against his throat.
“You’re holding it wrong,” he said to her but the words themselves were proof against it. The apple of his throat bobbed up and down, brushing against the edge of the blade, drawing pinpricks of blood.
“Admit that I’ve beat you,” she demanded, leaning close, putting more pressure on his chest. Her eyes were bright jewels of excitement.
“I am not worthy,” he said, pushing back with his chest. “To protect the hawkling of Ur.”
Her expression grew dark, like clouds covering the moon, and she leaned harder upon him, forcing her full weight down, pressing in a little more with the blade.
“Hawk,” she hissed. So, she did not like the teasing. He opened his mouth and let all the air out of his lungs, then pretended that he could not get anymore. She eased off only slightly. He started to fake a coughing fit but she clamped her hand down upon his mouth. If his father woke they would both be in terrible trouble. He couldn’t decide for whom it would be worse.
“Hawk,” she insisted again. He only nodded this time. She stood up, towering over him and put the blade away. She wore tunic and britches of thick black wool, stolen from the night-watch, with a black scarf wrapped round her head to hide her vibrant hair. She sat on the widow-ledge and crossed her legs.
“I am going beyond the wall,” she told him, as if she were speaking of polishing her nails.
“Little Hawk,” he said, touching his chest where she had knelt. “Flying away?”
“I will return,” she said. “Before the sun rises.”
He sat up and let the silence stretch. She wanted him to insist that she not go alone. She wanted him to insist that she need her Blade. He knew this and refused to speak. He was not the Queen’s-Own-Blade, and she was not the Queen. He was just a soldier in training. She a princess. His feelings for her were strong as ocean currents, but they were not allowed, this fact pounded into his head over and over again. They were not children anymore. Soon he would be a man. A man caught alone with a royal did not remain a man for long.
“Come with me, Blade,” she said at last, piercing him with those dangerous eyes.
“I am no Blade,” he told her.
“You would refuse your Queen?” she asked.
He looked away, looked to the door, his heart pounding. He whispered, “you are not Queen.”
She ignored him. “You would let your queen go off alone,” she whispered. “There could be bandits.”
“There are bandits,” he said. “You know it. There’s a damn war going on, and still you would ride alone into the night; the Hope of Ur cut down because she was too foolish to stay in her bed.”
“You sound like your father,” she said, teasing through her anger. “You sound like old Lord Muscyra.” She put on a voice not unlike the old man’s. “The Hope of Ur must behave as a Queen. The Hope of Ur must be sweet and proper. The Hope of Ur must remain in her bedchamber during the night.”
“You should listen to him,” he insisted. He reached out to touch her. She slapped his hand away.
“Who are you?” she snapped. “You think you have the right to touch me? The Blade may touch the Queen if she is in danger. But you are no Blade. You are a stupid boy.”
“I will be a man in a few days,” he said, squaring his shoulders.
“You are a stupid boy,” she said. “You would not protect the Hope with the full knowledge that she is running into danger.”
“Fine,” he said, throwing his legs off the side of the bed. “I will wake Father.”
Her hand was warm upon his shoulder.
“Cab,” she whispered. “Don’t.”
“You give me little choice,” he said not looking at her. His heart stumbled in its beating when she moved to wrap her arms around his neck. She pressed her body against his back, rested a soft cheek upon his bare shoulder. Her tears slipped along his collar bone.
“Inni,” he sighed. He brought a hand up to touch her arm. She let a small sob slip out. He tried to sit stiffly, to control his heartbeats. She shook against him.
“I am always to be proper,” she sniffed. “There is no fun for the Hope. I am always alone, even when I am surrounded by my father’s men, by Ur’Magur. Every hour of every day is learning and learning, they don’t let me be for even a moment. I am never allowed to be just Innogen. Always I am the Hope of Ur, the princess, Future Queen, the Red Hawk. Never myself, never free.”
More of her tears slipped down his chest. Still he resisted. He would be a man soon. He must be his own man, he must not sway to others whims like willow branches in the wind.
“I am a tethered hawk,” she whispered, her lips moving against the back of his neck. So soft.
“Alright,” he said, melting as she knew he would. “Alright, I’ll go with you.”
She planted a light kiss upon the back of his neck and pulled away, wiping tears from her eyes. It had all been a game, and he knew it. He had bent to her will as he had always done in the past. She was taught all hours of the day to understand people, to control them. She would be Queen and she would hold her people like a hawk holds a mouse. She crossed her legs and leaned against the wall, watching him as he got up and pulled on his shirt and tunic.
“I thought soldiers slept in their skin,” she teased.
“Wherever would you get an impression like that?” he replied. He pulled on boots and a light hooded cloak. “Besides, I’m not a soldier yet.”
She laughed quietly. “Is that the final test?” she asked. “If a recruit can sleep in his skin he is called a soldier?” She grinned wickedly and slipped quietly out the window. Cab followed.