The great hall. Cab shook his head. He hadn’t thought to see this place ever again. It was the largest chamber in the castle and served as throne room during the day, the place where nobles and commoners alike, could come to petition their Queen. It was transformed twice daily for dinner and supper, when long tables were brought in and filled with sumptuous dishes fit for royalty. Windowless, the light came from torches set in place upon the walls and braziers full of hot coals. Sometimes servants would toss bunches of fragrant flowers or herbs upon the braziers to turn the room slightly hazy, but it was a necessary thing to disguise the odour of many people stuck together in a room. Along the walls, with torches between, were hung intricate tapestries in the colours of Ur, red and gold and white. These mainly depicted hawks, meant to represent Innogen’s ancestors, the rulers that came before her. Each one bore a delicately embroidered border which told the tale of the ruler. This one here was of Madena Ruyes, who ruled Andrese nearly one hundred and fifty years past, and is credited with the creation of the Edict on Magic Use. The hawk clasps a scroll in one claw, and the border along the bottom shows a massacre of men and women in robes, supposed to represent magic users.
The stone floor of the chamber was laid with carpets of red, which had seen far better days. The men and women standing and milling about were mostly noble folk with their attendants, the scents of their perfumed hair and clothes mingled with the herbs burning in the braziers to gave Cab a headache. He remembered this, he had often excused himself from being present for the morning audience. And now that he thought on it, it was not just the smell that had made him do so.
He recognized a few of the nobles here and there. Lord Dendal, when he spoke up, Cab would have recognized that voice anywhere and the face that went with it was much the same as it had been, just more puckered and wrinkled, the skin perhaps a bit more translucent, the hair a little wispier. And the Lady Edode! She seemed drastically older. Her hair had been black when last he’d seen her and now it was more salt than pepper.
And then the small magic happened, and though Cab had not been speaking he felt his lips swell shut as all the others with any amount of the blood of Ur within them did. Innogen dismissed the court, the sceptre’s banging upon the stones sealing the magic. The urge to turn and depart from the room filled him but he resisted. He had fought the magic of that staff for all his life, he hadn’t forgotten how, though he had tried to forget about it all together.
That staff, and magic in general, made his skin crawl.
Halstan, the old bastard! Hanesca’s man, who had so infuriated Innogen, the reason Cab loved him so, walked past with a grim look upon his face. He stopped when he saw Cab, stopped in shock and stared at the man.
“My Lord Atholine,” Halstan stuttered in that quick, garbled accent that was like no other. “Can it really be?” He moved to take hold of Cab, to clasp his hand and Cab allowed a grin to split his face.
“Aye, Sir Halstan,” Cab said clasping the proffered arm. “It is I.”
“By all the Gods,” Halstan proclaimed. “You’re supposed to be dead!”
“Closer every day,” Cab said. “But you’re looking younger by the minute.”
“I hardly think so-,” He was interrupted by the sound of the sceptre striking the stone floor.
“Sir Halstan,” Innogen used her strong queenly voice, which carried easily across the room. That was all she needed to say. The old Knife’s face darkened.
“Ah,” he said as he lowered his eyes to their hands, still clasped upon each others forearm. “Closer by the minute.” He repeated, raising his eyes to Cab’s. “I must take my leave of you,” he glanced over his shoulder at Innogen, regal upon her throne. “Know this, my friend. There will be at least one to mourn your passing. It was good to see you, once more, before the real end.”
He broke their embrace, nodded respectfully and strode away out of the chamber. Cab could suddenly feel the beat of his own heart very strongly. He had been relieved in the Balnea, all thoughts of his death had been replaced with food and the gentle words of Nora. Seeing Halstan had brought him something near to joy. But the rapid change in the old Knife’s behaviour had returned to him the thoughts of his death, where he had merely been joking. Halstan thought he would never see Cab again. Suddenly there was something hard in his throat that he could not seem to swallow.
“Attend me,” Innogen intoned, and the words were empowered by the staff. He was walking toward her before he could even try to resist. He took a deep breath and bent the knee before her as he reached the base of the dais upon which the set of thrones sat. From this angle, the carpet looked quite awful, worn and discoloured and threadbare. He wanted to laugh at how his mind wandered to miscellany instead of mourning his own passing before it came. He was going to die now, she would kill him, perhaps she would do it herself. He took a deep breath and tried to accept this.
“Your majesty,” he breathed, the words barely audible in the large, near empty chamber. The flickering of the torches spoke louder.
“Cabriabanus Atholine,” she said as though tasting the words in her mouth. “Formerly, Captain of the Guard and the Queen’s-Own-Blade.”
She couldn’t do it. Her heart was racing. She was certain he could hear it. Certain he could feel the blood pounding in her head, in her chest, in her groin. She gripped the sceptre, white-knuckled, to still her shaking, and willed, with all her strength, her voice to be steady.
“You are brought before our royal majesty to answer for the crimes you have committed against the crown and people of Ur.” It was proper that she should ask him to rise now, but she could not do this if she had to look at him. She blinked traitorous tears from her eyes and bit her lip.
Perhaps she had asked him to rise, or perhaps he had heard the word in his head as he had heard it in the past so many times before, but he rose and stood tall, arms by his sides. She would not get away with sentencing him to death without looking him in the face. He stared up at her, all robed in black like the Lady of Darkness herself. White powdered face, false red-lips hidden behind a veil, a shroud; he stared directly into her eyes. He could accept his fate.
Her fear turned to anger at his insolence. She did not ask him to rise and yet he did! He was looking her right in the eyes! She was queen, none were permitted to look her in the eye! Her rage, fuelled by her anxiety and fear, bubbled and rose up within her. She gritted her teeth and stared over his head. She took out the mask of Queen, and covered herself with her royal demeanour like a cloak to hide her in shadows, she was hidden in the facade of Queen.
“You are charged with theft, with abandoning your post and position, and with attempted murder. Do you deny these crimes?”
“You will try me here, with no jury, with no representation?” he asked. “With no witness? Is this what justice has become in Andrese? Wicked men hold positions of power and the poor starve in the streets?”
“Do you deny these crimes?” she repeated, her voice booming.
“What have you done to your father’s legacy, Innogen? What have you done to this place?”
“Do not question me!” she roared, rising from her place. In a motion as fluid as a serpent she was suddenly before him, swinging the sceptre in a sidelong arc. He had expected this sort of outburst, he retained all the skill of manipulating her feelings that he had learned long ago. But she was faster than he had expected and he only barely managed to stop the sceptre before it struck his face. He held it in a firm grip in his left hand and the look on her face assured him that had the white paint not been covering her face, it would be red as the carpet and tapestries. She tried to yank the sceptre from his grip but he held fast. He did not want to be struck dead by the sceptre and she raged beyond her rational mind. He did not expect the slap that came from her free hand and stung his freshly shaved cheek. He loosed his grip just enough for her to tear the sceptre away. They took a step away from each other in wary unison. It might have been comical were anyone watching.
“You abandoned your post,” she said, in a tone more like to Innogen the woman. “That in itself is enough to have you hanged. Or drawn and quartered. But you tried to kill Cantan! That cannot be forgiven even though he survived. The least of it is stealing my horse, for which I should take your hands.”
“You would not take my hands,” he said.
“Do not tell me what I would and would not do!” she howled. “You have been gone ten years, you think that you know me now?”
“People do not change,” he said. “Least of all royalty.”
“You are even more arrogant than I remember,” she hissed. “You should be hanged for that alone.” She lifted up her skirts and moved back up to her throne.
“If arrogance were a crime, this city would be a necropolis.”
“You do not deny the accusations, which is as good as admittance. The crown would like to be lenient with you for all your past service. Theft and attempted murder will be forgiven. But you must die for abandoning your post,” under her breath she added, “and me.”
“No representation?” he asked. “This is no real trial, this is no real justice. You cannot-,”
“Tell me again what I can and cannot do, Atholine,” she demanded. “In a real court your crimes would not be forgiven. You should be grateful for the ease of your punishment. I do not propose to mutilate you before your death. Guards!” She stamped the butt of the sceptre upon the ground and a door opened to the side. A pair of burly men marched in, she did not need to tell them what to do.
As a young boy Cab had always thought that he would fight to the bitter end. He dreamed of being the hero, wrongly accused, pulled to the gallows. He dreamed of the daring escape that he would make, perhaps he would trick the guards with his words, or perhaps he would merely pull loose from their grasp. But now that they held him, now that the boy’s fool dreams had become reality, he found he did not have the energy. He watched the ground at his feet, felt the grip of the guards on his arms like iron manacles, unbreakable. His mood was as black as the long dark itself.
Why had the gods brought him here? Why had they brought him before the queen? His feelings for her, the ones he had buried under betrayal, anguish, sorrow, they had struck him like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. They had betrayed him. She had betrayed him, twice now. Even the gods had betrayed him, by allowing Iridian to survive. He was empty. He had nothing but death in his past and that too would be his future.
But the guards did not take him to the courtyard, to the noose or the chopping block. Instead they travelled down long corridors, until they came to a door that he knew. Why, he thought, why did she take me from this black dungeon only to put me back in? Was it all part of some cruel plan? He would not break under Iridian’s ministrations, so bring him into the light, give him some small glimmer of hope, at the very least feed and clean him so that he might remember what it is to be human, and then throw him back into the darkness to sob and bemoan his fate? To break upon the cold cell floor like waves upon the shore?
They did not go down into the ground, deep below cold store rooms and into the black cells. Instead, they went up. The spiral stair wound round and up for what seemed ages of eternity. At the top was an open space with a small table, chairs and a door. Of course. It was not proper to hold the blood of Ur, no matter how very little of it ran in his veins, in a black cell in a forgotten dungeon.
The guards opened the door to the tower room, the cell for prisoners of high rank, pushed him in and closed the door behind him. They said not a word. Keys jangled, bolts slid into place and a new chapter began for Cabriabanus Atholine.
The tower room was perhaps four strides across. It was furnished with a short bed, a desk and chair and a tiny window that a child might barely fit through. The shutters were old and did not fit properly, the hinges rusted and squealed when he opened them. A strong wind blew off the ocean, and the ocean was all that he could see, three hundred paces below him it tore at the rocky bluff on which the castle had its roots. He closed the shutters, which the wind rattled and shook, and turned back to the room. A weight like a dead rat lay in the bottom of his gut. It was not knowing when they would take him to die. It was uncertainty. And fear.
He paced a while, fear made him restless. He sat on the hard bed, back against the cold stone wall, raised his knees, crossed his arms and rested his head. The wind blew, mimicking his restlessness, rattling the shutters and squeezing into the room to summon goose-flesh on his arms. Perhaps he slept, there was no way to tell the passage of time. The sun seemed to sit in the same spot in the sky, never sinking or rising, only taunting him. Perhaps the days would stand still for him, perhaps they would not. He feared that when the sun sank into the ocean they would come and take him to the gallows. But when the sun sank he almost welcomed those footfalls in the outer passage. The cell was enough to make a man mad.
It was only the change of the guard, however, and a tray of food was shoved through the door. He glanced at it from his place on the bed. A cold bowl of brown, a crust of this morning’s black bread, a shrivelled apple, and a cup of ale or wine? He thought he didn’t care, until his stomach rumbled loudly. He took the tray and sat at the table provided. Wine, watered as if for a child. Well, a prisoner could not have the luxury of getting drunk, now could he? It was bitter old stuff, nearly vinegar and he was glad it was watered. He ate the cold brown and the hard bread and washed it down with the wine. Then he lay down on the bed, covered himself with the thin wool blanket and shut his eyes.
When night fell in that room it was as dark as the black dungeon and he found it difficult to sleep, what with the memories of that place creeping up on him in between the shuddering and groaning of the wind through the shutters. It was nearly as chill as the dungeon too. He kept dozing only to have visions of Iridian coming at him with a cruel look upon his face or a cruel implement in his hand. He would wake gasping, sometimes he would wake with a yelp and fall out of the small bed. He would hear the jingle of mail shirts as one or the other of the guards would come to look in on him. Eventually the guards got used to his nightmares and would only laugh if they heard him whimpering or crying out. He was sweating, despite the chill air in the room, he felt almost feverish. What would become of him? He wondered. Was he doomed to spend the rest of his life going mad in this tiny little cell at the top of a tower? Was that really to be his fate? He found himself clutching the eye around his neck and muttering a prayer to the Nameless god. At one time he had known all the prayers, but this one was a mumbled mixing together of any of the lines that he recalled.
“Oh mighty creator of earth and flesh and air,” he paused in his mumbling. The wind howled. “If you are the wind, please cease your howling. If you are the earth, turn those iron locks to dust that I may escape. If you are flesh....” His mind was muddled. The wind had stopped. His eyes grew heavy.