It was a quiet day for the new queen of the Sisters.
She had slept late into the morning after spending half of her first night back with her husband very much awake. When they had not been talking of this or that—things that had happened, things that had yet to happen and things that might—they had been losing themselves in each other’s kisses and touches.
“I hated the thought of being away from you before,” she murmured in one of their quieter moments. “Now I do not not know if I am even able. Just the thought is… I might lose my mind.”
“You will never be away from me again,” he had promised her. “Where I go, you go. I do not care if I have to deploy an extra legion just to keep you safe. I will not have you going into battle with me though,” he had added half in jest.
She had burst into tears. “I do not want you going to battle!”
He had pulled her into his arms and held her while she wept, unsure of what to say, but she had known the way of it: a king’s life was always in jeopardy while he wore the crown, and there would always be battles to fight.
How would she ever become accustomed to that? How many times would she have to watch him ride off with an open scabbard, knowing he might never come back?
The risk had always been there. But before, he had been High Prince in a land that had enjoyed peace for three generations. Now, he was king in a land at war with itself and its neighbor.
Trystane had not gone into this unblooded. The Military had been his since he was all of sixteen. He had been, and still was, the youngest Lord Commander in Aesha’ani history; he had fought before, and he had taken lives.
But she had been just a young princess then, her feelings for him less mature. She had worried over him, to be sure, but her knowledge of his exploits had been obscure, even a bit romanticized.
Now, he was waging all-out war for a throne he had been perfectly content not to occupy.
She had sent messages to Adora, Talia and Angelique shortly after waking, telling them to take this day for themselves and asking they not be offended by her need to be alone today. She had escaped from hell, but now a different sort of melancholy was setting in.
Gods, why? she silently beseeched. They had been so happy before. They had never wanted these crowns, but because of another man’s ego, they had been thrust upon them, even as they were stolen away; and now everything may yet fall apart.
Her life had been just this side of complete. She had had the happy family, the lovely home, the beautiful marriage; and she was a princess, for the gods’ sake. She was close enough to the “real world” to know that little girls everywhere dreamed of being princesses, but how many were actually lucky enough to be born of royalty? She had even finally conceived the child she had longed for.
Then, at the hands of a bitter man with wounded pride, it had all come tumbling noisily down around them.
She knew it did no one any favors for her to entertain thoughts of why-us? It accomplished very little and changed nothing. But for now, she somehow needed it. Tomorrow was a new day, and as good a one as any to begin this new life.
She half-expected her aunt to call on her at some point, but she did not, which was at once disappointing and a relief. She would have loved visiting with the duchess, as the last time they had done so had been months past. On the other hand, the queen did not think herself capable of being very good company, nor was she truly surprised; she expected Olessa must be beside herself with worry for Haylia now. Clío certainly was.
What could Haylia possibly be thinking? No matter which way Clío looked at it, she could not make her cousin’s absence make sense.
Trystane had left her this morning meaning to speak with Angelique about the princess. Clío had considered accompanying him; she had also considered talking with her new maid herself. But she simply could not work up the capacity to be social today.
Clío had never been one to succumb to fits of depression; yet she had done so more in the past moon’s turn than over the rest of her life altogether.
Desiring to wallow around in bed all day about as much as she wanted to socialize, she sat up and pushed the coverlets back irritably. She wrapped herself in a robe as she glided to the outer chamber door.
“Dereck,” she requested, poking her head out, “send a chambermaid to the kitchen for some toast and tea, please.”
“Right away, Your Majesty.”
Clío stared after him wistfully a moment as he hurried away, leaving her door to his current partner Wendell. Dereck reminded her more than a little of Stephan, and she suddenly remembered the two were second or third cousins.
When she noticed Wendell shoot her a curious look out of the corner of his eye, she smiled sadly at him and returned to her bedchamber, closing both doors softly behind her.
Moving to her armoire, she chose the simplest dress she found there, a cream-colored summer silk with lace ruffles at the cuffs and hem. She put on the dress, sans corset, over hose, smallclothes and slippers. After running a brush through her hair, she swept it over one shoulder in a loose braid and donned the same topaz-adorned band she had worn the previous day. It made her more than decent enough for the stroll around the Palace she desired.
A chambermaid appeared just as she had finished, with toast, jam and black tea on a silver tray alongside cream and honey.
Clío ate mechanically, more for the knowledge that she should than any real desire. When she was done, she left the tray in the sitting room and set out, Dereck and Wendell shadowing her.
Before long, she found herself at the arched entrance to the Swan’s Maze.
She turned to her guards. “You may remain here. And do not worry if I am a while.”
“Of course, Majesty,” Wendell murmured as they bowed and positioned themselves to either side of the floral arch.
There was a second entrance to the maze, nestled at the back, in the corner formed by the Palace’s great inner wall. But it was also located at the foot of the northeast watchtower, under the vigilant eyes of men with crossbows.
Unlike the previous day, when she had desperately sought her love, Clío took the maze slowly, traversing each and every corridor before making her way to the center.
She stood looking at the enormous marble swan figure for a time, appreciating the soothing sound of the water cascading from it. Perching on the wide stone rim of the bowl, she found herself remembering the first time she had come here when she was only eight, just after she had come to live at the Palace.
It was the first time she had ventured out of her chambers voluntarily, having spent the first few weeks despondently shut away in mourning. King Alleck himself had shown her the way to the center.
“My darling niece,” Alleck had greeted warmly when they crossed paths in the yard. “I am happy to see you out of bed. Would you like me to show you the way?” he had offered, seeing how she eyed the entrance to the maze.
She had smiled genuinely for the first time since her father had died. “I would love that, Uncle.”
She suddenly realized that she had lost nearly every parental figure she had ever had.
Her father, Prince Randon, Duke of Baldricshire, was assassinated when Clío was eight and her mother, Princess Raena of Rohannan, hanged herself only a moon’s turn or two after. King Alleck had been taken by pneumonia more than two years past. She had known Queen Adonna only as well as the Maquestas’ biannual visits would allow, and she had passed four years ago from some sort of sweating sickness. Now, her father-by-marriage, whom she adored, was gone, brutally murdered in his own bed in the dark of night.
“We are both orphans now, my love,” she whispered sadly to herself; their fathers had even died in a similar fashion. She entertained the frivolous hope that the duchess somehow lived forever. She and Haylia were all they had left now—assuming Haylia had not somehow turned on them.
Sighing, she stood. She needed a distraction from the real world now. She began making her way back to the arched entrance to the maze.
Thirty minutes hence, she left Dereck and Wendell flanking the entrance to another of her most-beloved spots at the Palace: the royal library on the second story of the main keep.
The library was a beautiful, airy chamber with high, elaborately-carved ceilings and tall windows that let in an abundance of light. The walls were hung with tapestries depicting peaceful scenes of nature and the images of deities and Anglica’an nobility.
Clío had always believed that the best thing about being highborn was that it was a matter of course to learn to read. She could not imagine a life of illiteracy.
“I wonder…?” she murmured to herself as she moved along one shelf, grazing her fingers across the spines of countless tomes as she passed. Continuing all the way to the end, she removed the last several books from their spots and peeked behind them. She grinned at what she found there. “It is still here!”
She plucked out a small black leather-bound volume. It was a work of fiction titled, Lady Jayne’s Secret, but it was not the sort of story ladies read at all.
Clío remembered smuggling it up to her chambers as a girl and devouring it in secret each night after her nannies had put her to bed. She had been not quite old enough to have ladies-in-waiting yet, but certainly old enough to understand the contents of this book—of an age so as to realize that it wasn’t proper, but not yet grown-up enough to care.
She turned it over in her hands and flipped through the pages, reading bits and pieces of passages here and there. It really was very eloquently and tastefully composed, despite the forbidden subject matter. At length, she happened to land on one that described in rather acute detail a particularly heated kiss.
In her mind, she was hurled back to a tiny bridge spanning a creek and surrounded by magnificent weeping willows and sprawling oaks.
“Oh!” Clío cried, startled, and reflexively swept the volume behind her back as she whirled. Seeing Trystane, she whipped it back out and clobbered him lightly on the arm with it. “Stop doing that!” she laughed.
Her husband’s eyes lit up with amusement as he marveled, “Did you just hit me?”
She giggled a little abashedly. “Yes, I suppose I did.”
“A little on edge, are we?” he kidded. “Not that I blame you. What do you have there, love?”
She colored as she glanced at the tome in her hand. “Oh, it is just… something I found… years ago.”
A smile spread across his face as he read the title. “I know this,” he mused softly.
Her eyes widened. “You do?”
“My brother came across it somehow several years back and found it rather amusing, so naturally, he pushed it on me.” The flame in his eyes ignited as he, added, “I now see where you learned some of your talents.”
Her blush deepened. “I think this silly book is the only reason I knew how to do anything at all at first.”
“Then I am grateful for it; take it and keep it close.”
“You know why.”
She smiled as she looked down at the volume again. Lady Jayne’s Secret was not just an erotic guilty pleasure; it was also a passionate love story. “But it is not mine—”
“Clío. It is only a book; and I could give you this castle if I wished.”
She grinned prettily up at him. “Oh you do not wish?”
“I do.” He abruptly and dramatically sobered. “Gods, how I wish it.”
Her smile transformed into a frown. “Darling, what is it?”
He gazed at her silently a moment, clearly trying to decide how to proceed.
Setting the book aside, she took his hands in hers and studied his face intently. “Trystane, what it? Is it my cousin? Is she–?”
“Haylia is… well, relatively speaking. And I wish to keep her that way.”
Her frown deepened. “Darling, please do not be cryptic. What is it you must tell me?”
Turning, he looped one of her arms through his. “Walk with me, love.”
They exited the library and started down the corridor, her two men and his trailing them discreetly.
Finally, he announced softly, “We are going away for a while.”
She glanced at him curiously. “What do you mean?”
He sighed deeply as they descended a great set of stairs to the ground level of the palace. “Princess Haylia… has agreed to marry Altair. That is why she did not leave the Fortress with you.”
Clío’s mind reeled. “What?” she breathed, staring at him through round eyes. She thought she must have misheard, because the notion was not anywhere near the realm of conceivable.
They reached the floor, and Trystane angled her toward an exit at the rear of the keep. “Lady Angelique tells me that Her Grace has spent the last fortnight either drunk or delirious, and that was only when she seemed present at all. She is not right in the head now, love, and that last day, Altair convinced her to be his… queen.”
“He is using her!” she concluded furiously.
“Yes,” he agreed quietly. “Making her his ‘queen’ will endear him to the kingdom. It is as simple and as heinous as that.”
“And yet, we are going away–?” She cut off and stopped in her tracks as his intentions dawned. “Trystane, you can’t!” she protested shrilly.
He glanced meaningfully back at the guards that would hear her, but she ignored it.
“You cannot just let him win!”
“I can,” he responded firmly, “and I will. For now.”
“But it makes no sense!”
He cupped her face in his hands, and suddenly he was every inch a king. “Darling, I am going to need you to calm—”
“After what he did to me?”
Grimly he turned to the guards. “Stay where you are.” Grasping her gently but authoritatively by the arm, he guided her through the nearest doorway into an unoccupied sitting room and closed it. “Listen to me! I want to tear him apart for what he did to you! I want to crucify him and cut off his cock before burning him alive and mounting his charred head on a stake! And I will—but not at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, including Haylia’s, Olessa’s and yours!” He took a breath. “My love, if I storm that city, the first thing he will do is kill her. He will drag her upon the ramparts and make us watch as he violates and beheads her. Then countless more will die in the fight that ensues. Do you want that?”
She burst into tears, and it broke his heart. “No!”
“Clío,” he uttered much more softly. “I am sorry. I detest speaking so plainly to you of such vile things. But you have to understand why we must do this. You speak of ‘winning,’ but even the greatest kingdom in all the world is no prize if it comes at the cost of my already-decimated family.
“Sweetling, all I have ever wanted was you. I have had a privileged life, and I count my blessings every day, but everything else is incidental. I will not gamble you for incidentals.”
She swiped at tears with the back of her hand. “But your father…”
“Would never have wished me to trade you—or Haylia, or Olessa—for a dynasty. And I believe you missed when I said, ‘for now.’ We will come back for what is ours, but I need to step back and figure a few things out first.”
“But… once Haylia has served Altair’s purpose, will he not simply get rid of her anyway? She cannot… she cannot bear children.”
He sighed softly. “Possibly,” he admitted, “but he also may not.”
She let out a frustrated breath.
“It is not a perfect plan, love,” he said, “but it is as near to one as we can contrive for now.” For a moment, she wondered if he had slipped uncharacteristically in to the royal we. “I have spoken with the duchess; she knows our intentions and supports them. So does King Julius. He is pulling his men and marching back to Anaemar on the morrow.”
“Where will your army go?”
She glanced up at him, startled.
He smiled softly. “Sweetling, I cannot drag fifteen thousand men, horses and supplies across the sea without someone noticing and without at least a hundred ships. We need to truly let him believe he has won. For now. We will take only forty with us, including all your ladies and my most trusted men.”
She nodded slowly. “Where will we go?”
“We will sail from Anaemar. Julius will ensure we can do so without anyone knowing. We will start out sailing west, then swing wide around the northern coast of Morgadesh along the Iceberg Straits and into the Crystalline Sea. There is a land to the east on Faradesh called Candora.”
She nodded. “I know of it.” She’d have to have been living under a rock not to.
“Aside from trade, the empire keeps itself fairly aloof from the rest of the world. We should be able to blend in for as long as we have need.”
“They will not know you?”
He gave an offhand shrug. “They might know my name, which I will not be using, but not my face.”
“Have you ever seen you?” she half-jested softly. More loudly, she mused, “So we will be commoners for a while.”
“Yes. Until we reach the Shield of the Heavens, and consult with the empress. But I would rather you be a living commoner than a dead queen,” he stated bluntly.
She flashed a small smile. “Well… I cannot say a simpler life will be wholly unwelcome. For a time.”
“It will be simpler in some ways and harder in others.”
She nodded and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Alright. It is far from ideal, but I will protest no further.”
“I know it is, love,” he sighed. “Clío.”
“You will always be free to disagree with me; but I cannot have you doing so loudly in others’ hearing again.”
She stared at him a moment before lowering her eyes. “You are right. I am sorry.” If she appeared to question his authority, others would as well.
“No. Do not be sorry, my love,” he murmured and kissed her sweetly.
“When do we leave?” she inquired breathlessly.
“In three days.”
She brightened, albeit a bit sadly. “Do you yet have duties to attend today?”
“I must see to the men’s preparations to march tomorrow; but I can leave things to Ryman after a time.”
“Before we set out, there are places here we must visit one last time… for a while.”
“Yes,” he murmured, “there are. And we will visit them—just as we used to.”
Within the Great Royal Fortress of Aesha’an, two young men were living on the edge of a very sharp greatsword.
The houndmaster Tucker had hung around in the stable hayloft until after the queen and her unusual entourage had departed. There, he had taken only a cursory notice of all else around him as, with a mixture of relief and longing, he watched the girl he loved get ready to ride away from the castle. If all went well, she would soon be away, and hopefully safe; on the other hand, she would soon be away.
It doesn’t matter; you can’t have her. As one of the queen’s own companions, Adora held a station high above his; besides, she was well-known to be enamored with Stephan Mikelton, one of the king’s most promising young knights.
After the soon-to-be refugees had taken their leave, Niko had frantically waved him down at the right moment, and Tucker had scrambled from the loft. Taking advantage of the commotion issuing from the King’s Tower and drawing the curiosity of all awake at this hour, he had slipped around the perimeter of the Fortress grounds and back to his small apartment near the kennels.
He had taken to his bed, but had not slept the remainder of the night.
Nonetheless, he rose at his usual time in the morning, to go about his usual business, as if he had been there all along.
That was when he first noticed the absence of his master—and his little brother. Some of the hounds were missing as well.
Early that afternoon, when they had still not materialized—They’ll come, he had told himself—he made his way in a barely-contained panic to the Falcon’s Nest in search of Cain.
If he is gone as well, I’ll throw myself from the balcony. The falconer’s apprentice was supposed to have slipped back up to his Royal Tower apartments after relaying Astor’s last signal to Tucker—a relatively simple thing, as the entrance to that tower was not routinely guarded, as were the towers that housed the Maquestas.
Tucker breathed an enormous sigh of alleviation to find the young falconer there, speaking softly to his pigeons as he tended them.
Cain turned from his busywork at the sound of Tucker entering. He appeared pale and gaunt, in deep distress.
“I have been out with the birds,” he said by way of greeting. Without mincing words, he announced, “Altair still lives, and Master Blount’s body has been hung near the Dragon Gate as a warning to those who plot against the… king.” This last dripped with irony and hatred.
Tucker swallowed hard as he lowered himself slowly on to the chair at the writing table, trying and failing to wrap his mind around the news that he would never see Master Blount alive again.
“And the queen and the others?” he asked wearily.
“Altair is in a rage because they are missing—Her Majesty is, anyhow, along with her maids and one of the princess’, as well as a Kartha’ani knight presumed to have aided in their disappearance. Her Grace and her other living maid remain.”
“What? Why?” Tucker exclaimed in shock, completely forgetting the remark he had been about to make in recall of the Kartha’ani knight. He had heard much more than he had seen the night before from the hayloft; he hadn’t had the opportunity to count the women and know some were missing. Nor would he have thought to, with Adora so near.
Cain shrugged. “That, I don’t know, but intend to find out.”
“Have you seen Astor?”
Cain frowned. “No. He is missing?”
Tucker put his head in his hands, sighing, “He is.”
Cain’s frown deepened. “I expect to be questioned at any time regarding the disappearance of Master Cullerton and Ollie—assuming their absence has even been noticed. The prince will no doubt want to speak with you about Master Blount, and Astor, if he knows of his involvement. I would use your distress over both to your advantage and insist you know nothing.”
Tucker jumped up. “We should not be found together,” he realized. “It might be suspicious.”
Cain sighed. “You’re probably right.”
Tucker looked around helplessly. “Well, then… back to the kennels, I suppose, to pretend I know nothing.”
Cain gave him a small mirthless smile. “Maybe find a girl tonight, to distract you from things.”
No one knew of Tucker’s feelings for Adora; they only knew of his reputation for charming the ladies, which was in fact just that: a distraction.
Tucker sighed sadly as he turned toward the door.
Cain moved to the chair Tucker had just abandoned, rubbing at the bruise Astor’s rock had left the previous evening. He was surprised they hadn’t already been questioned, though the royals’ motives for anything were always lost on him. He was only the messenger.
For the fiftieth time in a fortnight, he thanked the gods his mother and school-age sister were not in residence at the Fortress. Where most young servants here were the children of the older ones, Cain had instead been recruited from without; many falconers were, for the special training most underwent before being offered in service to a House or a castle. His father had passed when he was very young.
He had surreptitiously sent a bird to his mother in Majere just after Altair had taken the city, letting her know that he was alright, and that he would ask Ollie to send another bird if that changed.
Now that might be about to change, and Ollie wasn’t there to relay the message.
Within the Fortress walls, there was someone else he thought of every minute of every day, wondering where she was and hoping to the gods she was alright.
Kira, he thought in despair, if we both get out of this alive, I’ll find the courage to finally tell you how I feel.
Ashe Lockhart, formerly of Clío Ashworth’s personal guard, stood just inside the door of King Gavin’s study, a young man named Justinian on the other side. Ashe kept his face still, expressionless, so as not to openly stare death at the man sitting behind the big desk; it required a monumental effort.
Upon taking the Fortress, Altair had set his own guards on Clío and taken hers—the ones he hadn’t cut down on his way in—for his own. As such, Ashe had been forced to attend him on a rotating basis during the Kartha’ani prince’s occupation of Majere.
He had also taken the pledge of fealty Altair had forced on each member of the household still present and living, in which he swore on his honor before the gods to serve the Kartha’ani and declared that his life should be forfeit should he ever defy this pledge. He meant not a single word of it, but he was reasonably certain the gods would forgive him.
It had not taken long for rumors of what was going on in Trystane’s bedchamber to reach Ashe’s ears.
Altair’s story had been that he had ordered Clío, Haylia and their companions confined only until he could be sure of their loyalty to him, and the unlikeliness of them making any kind of trouble. Ashe had highly doubted this was the truth to begin with; then the rumors had started.
“I hear they are dead, and he is only telling us they are alive to keep our morale from crumbling,” one fellow soldier had whispered to Ashe and several others one night in the Kartha’ani-guarded barracks under the Fortress grounds. “As if killing our king wasn’t enough to destroy our ‘morale,’” the soldier had added snidely.
“I hear he simply locked them up and forgot about them,” another had confided, “and nobody knows whether or not they still live.”
“Well I heard,” a third man spoke up, a bit too loudly for Ashe’s comfort, “that he and his men have made them their little playtoys, if you catch my meaning.” There was no sympathy and no malice in the man’s tone; he had spoken as if he simply stated a cold, hard fact.
Ashe had only listened, his disgust and contempt for Prince Altair and the Kartha’ani fattening by the second.
Finally, just yesterday, after announcing his sudden, inexplicable engagement to Princess Haylia, the prince had casually informed his men of his cold-blooded impromptu execution of Stephan Mikelton—one of Ashe’s closest friends. “His body hangs at the entrance to the castle, as a reminder of why the rest of you had best behave,” Altair had warned, his chilly blue gaze landing pointedly on Ashe as he said it.
A monumental effort, indeed. He wanted to leap across that desk, wrap his hands around the Kartha’ani’s throat and squeeze until the man turned red, then purple, then blue. He wanted Altair Rothford to die in agony for what he had done to their queen, to so many of Ashe’s friends and fellow knights… and to his sweet Talia.
She was all he thought about during the endless, sleepless nights he had spent alone since the invasion.
He wasn’t sure exactly what had transpired the night before; but it was an undisputed fact that Clío, her ladies and one of Haylia’s were now missing—vanished in the dead of night, presumably while Altair had been fighting off assassins that had—coincidentally?—come for him in the darkness.
Those assassins had been the kennelmaster Horus Blount, whose body now hung next to Stephan’s, and one of Blount’s apprentices, who had fled with a chambermaid.
Also missing was one of Altair’s own sergeants.
Altair seemed little concerned about the chambermaid or the ladies-in-waiting—but the attempt on his life and the disappearance of Clío Ashworth Maquesta and his sergeant had him in a blind rage. Naturally.
Ashe caught the sound of several sets of footsteps approaching the study in the corridor without. The footsteps halted at the entrance, and after a moment one of the guards outside gave a brisk rap. With Altair’s permission, Justinian pulled open the heavy double doors to admit Commander General Silas Cliven, who escorted a tow-headed young man in a plain-colored, slightly dirty tunic and breeches.
“The remaining houndmaster, Tucker Long,” Cliven announced; Ashe thought he detected a hint of reluctance in the older man’s tone as he presented the boy to his lord, nudging him firmly to a kneeling position.
Altair stood with the aid of a cane, heavily favoring his left leg. Ashe wanted to grin at the sight. He had gleaned disjointed details of what had transpired the previous night from audiences Altair had held with his men concerning them, including the fact that Blount’s “filthy little minion” had unceremoniously jammed a dagger in his thigh. Ashe would kiss the boy and promise his future eldest daughter to him if he ever saw him again.
“How did you find him?” Altair asked, moving awkwardly around the desk toward the two. Somehow, the limp made him seem yet more sinister than he already did.
“Going about his business at the kennels, Majesty,” Cliven replied, “albeit in great distress. The first thing he asked me after I approached was whether or not I had any news of his master and his younger brother—the other kennel apprentice—whom he had found to be missing this morning.”
“Is that so?” Altair asked the boy.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the houndmaster replied nervously.
“So I am to believe that you know nothing of their plot to take my life and spirit the princess away from here?”
She is Queen of the Sisters now—you made her that, Ashe thought bitterly.
“I know nothing, Your Majesty,” Tucker insisted firmly, with only a hint of hesitation.
Altair snorted derisively. “Would that I could believe that,” he mused darkly. Indicating his debilitated leg, he growled, “Do you know how I got this? Your brother gave it to me—your younger brother. Now, why would Horus Blount plot with your younger brother and not let you in on it? If he only needed one partner in this crime, why not the older of the two?”
“I… I don’t know, Your Majesty,” Tucker replied quietly.
Altair stared incredulity at the boy a moment before approaching from a different angle. “While Blount and your brother were in the midst of their pathetic attempt to get rid of me, someone had to have been assisting the women who escaped the Crown and High Towers. I suppose you know nothing of that as well.” His derision grew more obvious with each word.
“I do. I mean, I don’t— I don’t know anything, Your Majesty,” Tucker stammered.
“Hm.” Altair dropped his gaze to the floor and paused, as if in deep thought. “Let me put it this way, then. I have already killed your master. When I find that brat you call a brother, I will kill him too.” Altair raised his eyes back to Tucker’s as he clearly sensed, as Ashe did, the houndmaster bristle. “Do you mean to tell me that you are willing to lie your way out of this, even as you see their bodies displayed before you? You mean to let them die, while you remain alive and unpunished?”
Tucker hesitated, clearly having been caught off-guard by this particular accusation.
Altair flashed that unsettling mirthless grin he possessed as no other man possessed such. “Where is your brother?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty, I swear I don’t!” Tucker insisted, and Ashe sensed somehow that this, at least, was the honest truth.
Altair’s composure vanished. “Where in bloody hells, could he have gone?” he bellowed. “Clío and the other women left not a hint of how they escaped; it is as if they simply disappeared in the darkness! Your brother puts a dagger in me, then flees and does the same? Then I receive a report from a Capital Gate guard that one of my sergeants escorted some so-called ‘exiles’ out of Majere in the middle of the night. That had to have been them, but how did they get even that far? How did they infiltrate my ranks? There must be some who remain within the walls who know something of this, and you expect me to believe one of them is not you?”
Tucker seemed to grapple with himself before straightening, as if suddenly resolute. “If you are going to kill me, then kill me. But I will not give anyone else up.”
Altair’s eyes widened in an expression of the same shock Ashe felt at Tucker’s abrupt turn-around. “I will find them anyway! And they will die! Your… ‘nobility’ will only delay the inevitable!”
Though he could only see the back of his head, Ashe sensed Tucker’s glare. “At least I’ll die knowing I helped save the life of the queen; if others must die for it as well, it will not be because of me.”
Altair sighed loudly, as if in acute exasperation, rather than the all-out fury Ashe knew he must have held within.
It took everything in Ashe not to draw his sword in defense of the boy when Altair whipped out a dagger of his own and placed the tip of it at Tucker’s throat.
“I will give you one more chance, boy,” the prince hissed through clenched teeth. “Where is the brat, and how did the bitch escape?”
“I. Don’t. Know,” Tucker replied defiantly.
Without changing expression, Altair slid the blade of his dagger smoothly into the houndmaster’s throat.
Ashe swallowed hard in an effort to remain passive and keep his gut in check as, blood gushing, Tucker dropped to the floor without a word, a gasp or a scream.
Without waiting for a command, Cliven turned and left the study, muttering something about finding servants to clean up the mess.
Gods, is he just going to keep cutting us down until he has what he wants? Ashe thought with a sickening feeling that he already knew the answer.
The girl had been weeping more often than not for three days, and it was beginning to wear on the boy next to her—if for no other reason than that he loved her, and her tears broke his heart.
“Deia,” Astor uttered her name softly, somewhat desperately, unsure what it was he meant to say. He only knew he had to break the monotony somehow. If he was glad of anything—and he was not—it was the fact that he could not see her. If he had had to look at her pretty face as she cried…
They had torn away from the King’s Tower that night at a speed born at once of youth and terror. The dark Fortress grounds had formed a blur around them as they ran hand-in-hand, with no particular destination in mind. He had simply been looking frantically for a place—any place—they could hide.
At length, they had come across the unwatched entrance to the Fortress’ underground dungeons near the north end of the main keep. Their new “king” had killed the few occupants immediately upon taking the castle, and he was not one to imprison offenders; he simply did away with those who displeased him. The dungeons yawned empty and unguarded before them.
They had skittered down the stairs into the pitch-blackness, only just keeping from tumbling head over heels. At the bottom, Astor had pulled Deia by the hand all the way down to the end of the corridor, slowing down only enough to feel the cold stone walls with his hands so they knew when they had reached it. Turning to their left, he groped for a door, hoping that in their abandonment, at least some of the cells had been left unlocked.
The first door he found was locked; he did not want to think about what might be shut away behind it. If Altair had found any prisoners already dead, Astor guessed he likely would have just left them there. He was not a man to trouble himself with such frivolities as disposing of deceased bodies he didn’t create.
Gavin had not been a barbarous king, but he had been known to allow a prisoner or two who had committed particularly heinous offenses—rape, the murder of women or children—to slip his mind.
The second door was unsecured and half-open. He pulled Deia into the cell behind him, slamming the door shut. The silence that had ensued had been deafening, the darkness blinding.
That was when she had begun to weep, and had nearly not stopped since.
Every couple of hours, the young houndmaster would poke his head out and peer down the long corridor to the foot of the stairs at the other end, looking for the pale shaft of light that shone down from under the heavy dungeon door when the sun was up. That way, he usually knew whether it was day or night; otherwise, time became nonexistent.
Once every night, he used his great skill at sneaking to slink out and fetch water from the troughs along the outside of the nearby stables. It was not the cleanest, but it was water.
Food was harder to come by. That first night, he had wracked his brain desperately for ideas on where he might find food that was not either guarded, locked up or attended. He had peeked in a stable window each night, hoping to find Niko on duty; the stablehand would have unhindered access to carrots and oats, at least. Alas, he was not. Hells, he might not even still live.
He did not dare trying to make it all the way to the other end of the keep, back to the kennels, no matter how fervently he wished to. Deia was depending on him, and he would not put her at such risk, nor would he leave her alone down here for that long.
In the end, he had slipped into the rose garden and plucked a few from the largest blooming plants. They were far from tasty, but they were edible. Deia mostly stuck to the petals and leaves. “At least they are not so dry as the stems,” she had muttered the first night.
On what must have been early on the first morning after they had fled, men came down into the dungeons in search of them. At the first sounds of their approach, Deia had nearly lost her mind, but Astor only clamped a hand over her mouth hard and dragged her over to a corner of the cell next to the door. “Curl up in the corner and make yourself as small as possible; and stay silent,” he had whispered urgently before crossing to the other front corner of the cell and doing the same.
Astor absently wondered if he had been a weasel in a past life as the door swung open and nearly clobbered him; he was only just able to make himself small enough for the space. But Altair must not have considered finding a kennelmaster’s apprentice and a thirteen-year-old chambermaid all that crucial. At least, his men did not, because the searchers only waved one small torch around, taking a cursory glance inside each cell before moving on to the next.
Astor had let out a trembling sigh of relief, and Deia had begun to weep softly.
Sometimes, they argued.
“What do we do now?” Deia had implored in frustration. “We might as well present ourselves and let him kill us. Drinking horse water and chewing on roses in a dark dungeon cell—this is no kind of life!”
“No. I will figure a way to get us out of here,” Astor had insisted.
“How exactly are we supposed to ‘get out of here’?” she had cried.
“I don’t know! But I will!” he had replied irritably.
Now, as he had done for countless hours over these three days, he held her close and listened to the soft sounds of her tears, feeling helpless and increasingly without hope.
“Deia,” he repeated nonetheless. “I played a part in breaking the queen free.” Though he had no way of knowing for sure, he had to believe that that part of the mission had worked out. “I can find a way to get us out of here.”
She sniffled. “Alright,” she murmured, though her tone lacked conviction.
She lifted her head from his shoulder as if to look at his face, though she could see no more than he could in the blackness. “At least I am not alone anymore,” she mused, swallowing her sobs. “Astor, he hurt me! He was so rough with me.”
Startled, Astor looked back at her, as near as he could. This was the first time she had mentioned how the prince had used her. He frowned. “Were you a maiden?” he ventured.
“Of course I was!” she answered indignantly.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized hurriedly. “I didn’t mean to imply–”
His words were cut off when she suddenly kissed him.
He had kissed girls before, but mostly in a playful, childish manner. There was a decidedly adult passion in this kiss that was entirely new to him.
It was not the most skilled of kisses—neither had had that much intimate experience, aside from the unappetizing role she had played for Altair that night. But it was perfect.
“Are you a… a virgin?” she asked him softly after.
“Yes,” he replied honestly. His brother Tucker had bedded at least one girl by his age, but Astor wanted none but Deia.
Like most young servants, Astor had grown up at the Fortress, and he worshipped the Aesha’ani High Prince like a deity. There had always been two versions of Trystane Maquesta, according to the talk that inevitably floated around: the gorgeous ladies’ man who had had half the girls in Majere, and the sweet handsome prince who was in love with an Anglica’an princess. It was the latter that Astor chose to believe and emulate.
It was not difficult. He believed Deia had hung the moon and the stars in the sky, and dictated the path of the sun. She may have been “only” a chambermaid, but to him, she was as much a princess as their new queen had been, and just as beautiful; more, even.
He sensed her smile for the first time since their ordeal had begun. “I think I know a way we can distract ourselves from our plight,” she whispered, and his eyes widened as she began to pull at his breeches.
“Deia!” he exclaimed, straightening his spine in a physical effort to ward off his baser instincts. “No!”
“I know you want it,” she teased. “I can feel it.” Indeed, there were things stirring, giving him away.
“I– I do,” he admitted, “but–”
He felt her shrink away from him. “Is it because I’m spoiled?” she asked meekly, the hurt plain in her sweet voice.
“Oh… gods, no!” he protested. “You could never be ‘spoiled’ to me. It is only that… I won’t use you like he did.” He felt the tightness in his chest that formed each time he unwillingly imagined the way Altair had violated her.
“Why?” she breathed.
“Because you’re not a whore!”
“No. I meant, why would I never be spoiled to you?”
“Because…” he hesitated. “Because I love you.”
She was quiet a moment, and his heart ached with the fear that he had said too much. Finally she spoke: “I am not a maiden anymore anyway. And you are a boy; it doesn’t matter if you aren’t… untouched.”
“Still,” he insisted. “I won’t take you like a common harlot. I would rather wait until I’m… until we’re wed.”
He sensed her smile once more. “Why… did you just ask me to marry you?”
“Maybe,” he uttered unsurely. He knew he wanted to marry her; he just didn’t know if she felt the same. “Someday.”
“Astor,” she grinned in answer. “I love you too,” she declared before kissing him again, at once more passionately and more sweetly than before.
Four and a half thousand Anaemari knights stood at the ready outside the gates of the Ashworth Palace, cavalrymen mounted, infantrymen at full attention.
All bore arms, and many were armored, though only lightly; their passage north was expected to be long, but peaceful. King Julius Carlisle of Anaemar sat astride his black-and-white speckled stallion before them all.
Issuing from the Northwood, where an enormous camp had been struck at first light this morning, was a seemingly endless column four times as large. Aesha’ani knights on foot or in the saddle, they were led by General Moses Drake, chosen by Commander General Edric Ryman for his aged wisdom, unbreakable demeanor, and four decades of service under the kings of Aesha’an. Their passage south was expected to go smoothly as well, though their unprecedented homecoming would undoubtedly prove to be much less than cheerful.
King Trystane stood watching the departure of his army with Queen Clío at his side and Duchess Olessa and Sir Edric nearby.
He knew his visage remained passive and confident, but his wife somehow sensed his distress. Keeping her expression as carefully arranged as his, she glanced at him and asked in a low voice, “What is it, darling?”
He hesitated before answering simply, “It is nothing and everything all at once.”
She gave him a small sad smile. “I believe I know exactly what you mean by that,” she murmured.
He glanced at her affectionately before leaning over and kissing the top of her head.
“The last time I observed a scene like this one, I had to watch you go with them,” she mused. “I am just glad I–” she cut off and threw him a sheepish look. “I am sorry, love, I– I only meant…”
He smiled down at her. She knew as well as anyone how unnatural it felt to him to send his military off without him. “I know what you meant, my queen; and I am glad of that too.”
She smiled back, then fell silent, and he sensed her brooding over something—a very unusual state of being for her, though not at all unexpected given the circumstances. Overwhelmed by a hundred different sentiments all at once, he tightened the loop of his arm around hers, pulling her closer without making a scene. “Clío.”
“I love you.”
She smiled again, this time in that way that she had of making the sun seem pale. No matter how old he grew, how long their lives may last, where they were, or what their state of affairs, her smile would always take his breath. “And I love you.”
King Julius trotted over and dismounted before them as the end of the Aesha’ani column finally marched on to the road that would lead them through the city of Ashworth before forking north, east and south, where the two armies would part ways.
“Your Majesty,” Julius greeted.
“Majesty,” Trystane returned.
“This is goodbye, for now,” Julius declared. “Until we meet again, in a fortnight or so, at which time…” The king frowned. “Well, I will not make a scene, and I hope I am not overstepping; however, I wish to tell you, as an old king to a new, and as a good friend of your father, just how proud I am of you, Trystane. I know Gavin would be as well.”
Trystane inclined his head, a hundred emotions becoming a thousand. “You are not overstepping, Majesty; I am grateful.”
Julius turned to Clío. “Our beautiful queen.” He held out his hand and kissed the back of hers when she accepted it. “May peace be with you, wherever you go.” It was a formal expression of well wishes, but Trystane could sense the sincerity in it.
Clío smiled serenely. “Thank you, Majesty. I shall pray for a safe and peaceful journey for you and yours.”
Trystane watched her, overcome by how beautiful she really was, and how perfectly she fit her new role. He desperately wished they would not soon have to do away with it, for a time at least.
“Majesties… My Lady… Sir.” Julius acknowledged each in turn before turning back to his horse and remounting. “Until we meet again,” he called down to them all in one final farewell, and returned to the head of his column.
At Julius’ word, the fractured Anaemari legion moved out.
After the last man of them had taken his leave, the four stood in silence for some time, listening to the diminishing sounds of the departing armies, each lost in their own thoughts.
Finally, Trystane glanced at his Commander General to his left and the queen and duchess standing arm-in-arm to his right. “Let us go,” he murmured.
In half an hour, he was standing at the window in Clío’s bedchamber, bewildered and at a loss. Their small party did not depart Ashworth for another two days, and he had shockingly little to do in that time.
“What will we do with ourselves?” he inquired rhetorically as Clío approached from behind, ducking under his arm and wrapping hers around him.
“I have a few ideas,” she uttered flirtatiously. Reconsidering, she amended, “Well, really only one idea; but lots of different ways in which to do it.”
Trystane smiled. “Are you a right and proper queen, or are you a lady of the night?” he teased softly.
Clío’s cerulean eyes widened in feigned indignation. “Your Majesty, are you calling me a whore?”
“Do I put silver on your nightstand and leave your bed at night?”
“Of course not,” she giggled.
He planted a soft kiss on the tip of her nose. “Then you are not a whore. I meant, ‘wildly talented and insatiable.’”
“Oh, well, in that case… can I not be both?” she grinned.
Grinning back, he laughed, “Absolutely.”
Pretending to frown, she murmured, “Oh, I just hope I never get the two confused…”
She had told him many times of the fire she saw in his eyes when he wanted her. When she put it like that, he wondered at just how it ever managed to go out; he knew it burned bright now as he said, “My darling, how can you possibly be so perfect?”
She shrugged. “I was raised in castles, where they settle for nothing less.”
“You know what I mean.” Idly, he reached for the purple beaded ribbon that secured her long braid and pulled on the end, untying it.
Reaching up, she began expertly unraveling it with one hand. “Well then… I do not know.” She removed the amethyst band from her head and shook out her braid-kinked hair.
His breath quickened with the knowledge that, despite her casual manner, she was putting on a subtle show for him. She knew how he adored watching her let her hair down. “Then just kiss me,” he whispered.
Her hands came up to cup his face as she did, and she did not stop for long, sensuous moments.
At length, she drew back, breathless. “My love,” she breathed. “I will go anywhere with you. I will do anything, be anyone… just so long as it is with you.”
He closed his eyes and took her face in his hands gently. “Sweetling, I promise you: I will bring you home someday. I will part the sea and reshape the earth for you, if you wish it.”
“You would sacrifice kingdoms, end a dynasty, for me.” Her voice trembled as she began to weep.
He opened his eyes and searched hers desperately. “Yes,” he replied arduously. “But please, do not think of it in that way. Please, love.”
She nodded slowly. “I will try.” She moved her eyes back up to his. “Will you make me another promise?”
“I would make you a million promises, and keep them all.”
“Love me forever?” He took a breath to say that of course he would love her forever, but she went on. “Take no other queens and no other lovers, and just love me forever?”
“‘No other queens’? Clío, why would you think I would ever–”
“Trys! I just need you to say it.”
He stared at her as comprehension abruptly dawned. Heirs. He held her gaze firm as he assured, “I will take no other queens and no other lovers. I will love you for eternity.”
He then spent the afternoon showing her, in every way he knew how, just how much he loved her, and how long he would continue to do just so.