She didn’t know how long she floated, lost in storm-tossed waves, but one day she surfaced, to the sound of birdsong, in a calm sea.
Anastasia opened her eyes.
White lace and pale silk ribbons greeted her, billowing in the gentle breeze that blew in through the open window. The tapestry of emerald and sapphire beyond resolved itself into several steep hills laced with icy rivers and tipped in white. Not hills, Anastasia realized as her eyes focused, mountains. The crisp smell of the air was as wild as that of the sea, but differently spiced, with a bite of cold she wasn’t used to. Fear rising Anastasia’s eyes darted about the room, and came to rest on the figure seated at the foot of her bed. He was watching her with that same crooked smile in a face more gaunt than she remembered, but of a healthier color. Even the twinkle in his eye was the same, that piercing blue. Anastasia lurched forward before she could stop herself and her fingers brushed the stubble of his cheek before she realized her impropriety.
He smiled just the same and caught her hand to keep her from withdrawing, pressing it firmly against his jaw. Her fingers brushed the edge of the clean white bandage where it intersected a red, freshly healed scar that ran, Anastasia could see from its exit above, from the top of his cheekbone through the arch of his eyebrow and into his hairline, perfectly bisecting his brown eye.
“What do you remember?” Braeden asked quietly.
Anastasia traced her fingertips lightly across the tip of his scar, then moved to inspect the part on his forehead. “I had a son,” she heard herself say, “and I gave him to the sea.”
Braeden nodded, clear eye watching her as she traced his hairline to his jaw and placed a finger over the beat of his heart there. “An academician came at Selah’s insistence. You had lost too much blood, she said, but when he arrived the King was there. You told them to leave you and care for us instead.”
Anastasia smiled sadly at Braeden’s expression. “I can imagine how you liked that.”
The corner of his mouth twitched so she knew she was forgiven. Arms tired she let them drop but was grateful when Braeden wrapped her hands warmly in his. He shivered slightly.
“I can guess the rest,” Anastasia stopped him. Braeden glanced up at her but dropped his face before she could read it and began chafing her hands between his. She watched him for a moment, noting how the sunlight brought out pale threads of gold in his unruly mop of brown hair. She glanced up and squinted at her canopy.
“Where are we?”
Braeden paused. “I should probably let our host explain.”
Confused, Anastasia watched him rise and go to the door. A sudden fear stabbed her in the breast. “Don’t go!”
He turned and smiled at her before opening the door and returning to her side. As Braeden’s weight rocked the bed beside her Anastasia stared at the man settling into Braeden’s now vacant chair. He let her look her fill, smoothing his breeches and straightening his cuffs before turning slowly to meet her eyes.
“Sir Thraxes,” Anastasia said, dumbfounded.
He inclined his head. “Milady.”
“What are you doing here?”
The knight smirked. “Well, this is my castle.”
Anastasia’s mouth hung open. Sir Thraxes smiled faintly at the sight, raising an eyebrow in a somehow kindly, if condescending, gesture. Like something a father might do. It was Braeden who finally broke through the swirl of Anastasia’s thoughts.
Chuckling, Braeden squeezed her hand. “It has been Sir Thraxes all along. Well, Lord Thraxes now,” he told her when she turned still-wide eyes to him. “He’s the one who helped smuggle out your siblings, he warned your parents, he even tried to smuggle them out but they wouldn’t go.” Braeden’s smile faltered. “Lord Thraxes tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen. He told them to leave first, that he would get you out after the wedding, once it was safe, but they refused to leave before you.”
“I am sorry, for that,” Lord Thraxes cut in softly. Anastasia turned to see him watching her. “I hadn’t considered your parents’ loyalty to their children, nor the strength of their stubbornness.”
Anastasia snorted, hiccoughed, shook her head.
“I know you do not trust me my lady,” Lord Thraxes read her mind as he rose, “and my behavior has not made my allegiances clear. You have many questions but you must still be exhausted. I shall leave you now to rest, but I will return when you are ready and explain anything you desire.” He bowed before Anastasia could open her mouth and was gone.
Frowning slightly, Anastasia turned to look at Braeden, and felt her expression soften. He was gazing up at her with light in his remaining eye. Anastasia returned her hand to his cheek, running the tips of her fingers through the softness of the hair that brushed them.
“You are looking better, sir.”
“As are you, my lady.”
“Where is Selah?”
“Sleeping,” he soothed her. “She has been watching over your nights since her own recovery.”
The knot in Anastasia’s chest began to ease. “Then she is here, she is safe?”
Smiling, Braeden nodded, the corner of his mouth just brushing her thumb. “She is safe.”
Anastasia brushed her fingers through the hair at his temple. “How is it that we came to be here, and safe?”
With a sigh Braeden began to tell her. As she stroked her fingers through his feather-soft locks and down the roughness of his cheek Anastasia listened to the story of their journey from the dungeons.
“Apparently it wasn’t just your brothers who revolted. When they heard of the your father’s death most of the sea-lords, rose with them, led by Lord Lothar Goin. With news of the Queen’s treachery and the rise of King Alexander Silvanus, King Adenot has joined the fight on the Silvanus side and King Raske has closed his borders and withdrawn to the highest reaches of the north. The High King remains silent on the matter, but it has been noted that the southern pirates are farther north than usual, and better supplied, attacking Silvanus supporters with much more precision than one might expect of mere brigades. It was one of their bands that attacked the palace. In the confusion Lord Thraxes was able to get us out.”
“But why bring us here?” Anastasia asked, voicing the question that had been bothering her since she saw the mountains out her window. “We are in the Western Kingdom are we not? Easthaven is closer by far than any mountain stronghold. And how does Lord Thraxes, knight of King Silvanus, come to own a keep in the territory of King Adenot?”
“It is a long story my lady.”
Braeden’s face had fallen and now he gazed up at her with one blue eye, dark with sorrow. “As to how Lord Thraxes came into land in the Western Kingdom, he has long had ties to King Adenot and served him well as his eyes and ears in the East, or so I am told.”
Anastasia blinked. She’d heard of spies of course, there were even rumors Easthaven was home to several; the ostler belonged to King Raske, and everyone knew the cook’s daughter was sweethearts with a soldier from the Western Kingdom and sent him letters rather often. The cook himself was supposed to be a plant from King Silvanus, and even the High King was supposedly watching through the eyes of one of the academicians, or all of them, depending on who you were listening to and how drunk they were. But spies in Easthaven were one thing. To plant a spy in the court of one of the four kings, let alone among his gentry, was audacious to the extreme. And extremely dangerous. To imagine King Adenot, whom Anastasia had never seen but often heard described as jolly, portly, and useless, sending a man so fearlessly to do such a dangerous task showed far more resolve than anyone ever saw in him.
“My lady?” Braeden asked.
“Why am I here, and not home with my brothers?”
The seal knight’s face darkened and for a moment Anastasia thought he was angry, until a tear dropped, hot and heavy, on the back of her hand.
“Braeden?” Anastasia’s voice began to tremble.
“I am sorry, Anastasia.”
“Your brothers, I did not know until I awoke here and Lord Thraxes told me. Your brothers, it appears they were, cut down.”
Anastasia heard herself gasp from afar, like she was watching a play and the lead actress had yet to finish her apprenticeship. She almost laughed at her own poor acting, before she remembered it wasn’t an act, and that there was nothing to laugh about. Gregoir, his gruff exterior and rough manner almost disguising the profound thinker that shone through his soulful eyes. He was the wisest and the best of all of them, he should have led their people well for many, many years, married and had a castle-full of little boys, copies of himself, replacements for the brothers they had lost. She didn’t know it but she had hoped to see him, grey and grizzled, smiling kindly at his grandchildren. And Casey, who’d just begun to grow a beard, a little peach-colored fuzz he was fiercely proud of. He would never ride Licorice again. She’d never see him grinning as he crossed the finish line, eyes bright with victory. He’d been so quiet their last weeks together, what was the last thing she said to him? Tears began to drip down her cheeks as she pictured them the last time she saw them, both so quiet, Gregoir watchful, Casey sullen. They had dinner, and she snapped at them, she remembered, because they had asked about a bruise, the first of many. She’d shied away from the both of them, said hateful things when they were only trying to look out for her. She called them selfish and did not even bid them goodnight. That was their last memory of her, and now she would never be able to ask them to forgive her. They would never smile at her again. Casey would never produce a bit of string from his pocket when she needed one. Gregoir would never hug her too tight and too short. She would never see them marry, and they would never teach her children how to hold a sword or when to release the sails. How dark this world, without her brothers in it.
Gregoir was normally so careful, and Casey was so strong, such a good rider.
“How?” she choked out.
“My lady I don’t know if…”
Her voice turned to iron. “How?”
There was a short pause. “Lord Gregoir was laying siege to one of King Silvanus’ outlying supporters when he took an arrow. Lord Casey was injured trying to get to him and did not make it off the battlefield.”
“She seems to have escaped, along with your father’s young ward.”
“I suppose, yes. Last Lord Thraxes heard the two of them had fled to the sea-lords to regroup, but beyond that we know little.”
Anastasia’s gaze remained locked out the window. So, her brothers were dead and her sister fled to the sea. It was likely she had few supporters, and even with Lord Lothar’s help, they could not hold Easthaven. No, Raelyn would run, across the sea if she could, to live out the rest of her life unknown and unmarked, in hiding. Their house was gone, scattered to the winds. Anastasia was safe for now, but she wondered how long it would last. A year? A month? A day? Her mother had told her Sir Thraxes never did anything but to serve himself. Why had he brought her here?
“Leave me, please, Braeden.” She heard the coldness in her words and smiled faintly at him. “I need to think.”
He looked about to protest, then ducked his head and moved stiffly to the door. Anastasia was sorry to see him go, but she didn’t call him back.
There could be few reasons Lord Thraxes would help her family. Out of the kindness of his heart was certainly not an option, but why? True, her parents were good friends of the King, the previous king, but that’s where their importance ended, wasn’t it? And she was King Silvanus’s wife, but he had cast her aside and was no doubt already entertaining offers of a replacement. True, she was the only remaining heir to her house. They were unimportant in this era, but once those bearing the Avishey name had ruled most of the country. Could Lord Thraxes be intending to resurrect the Sea King’s Crown?
Growing restless Anastasia threw off her covers and got to her feet, only to sit abruptly again when the world began to spin. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against her bedpost.
Gregoir might have known. Though he was quiet and spoke little, Anastasia knew how observant he could be, saw it daily in his attentions to her, his interactions with their siblings and their parents, even with the servants. And he had made many friends at court, from all walks of life. No doubt he knew more about the climate at Kingsport than even her suspicious husband. Or he had, before...
Refusing to cry again, Anastasia turned her thoughts to older memories, recalled his rough embraces, shy, fleeting affections more suited to a bashful squirreling than a proven commander and adult heir to his house. Poor Gregoir, honest, forthright and just. And Casey, dazzling light and energy to Gregoir’s somber restraint, always moving quicker than light over waves before the bow. Too pure and too good the both of them.
Carefully, Anastasia opened her eyes and got slowly to her feet again, walking unsteadily to the window and fetching up against it, exhausted by three simple steps. The cold air was bracing, distracting her from thoughts of her losses. The dreamlike haze was wearing off and the danger of her situation was beginning to impress itself upon her.
Why? It made no sense?