The Exile

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The Means to an End

That evening, supper was a semi-formal affair.

It was not a party exactly, but it was larger than any run-of-the-mill royal family gathering, such as they were, and much smaller than a feast. It would also serve as both a counsel of sorts and a royal announcement.

It included all who would be accompanying the king and queen when they traveled to Anaemar, where they would steal away from Morgadesh: Clío’s ladies-in-waiting Adora, Talia and Angelique; the falconers Cullerton and Ollie; Trystane’s chief bodyguard, confidant, and most trusted knight Sir Edric Ryman; Sir Nicolaij Orlando, formerly of Kartha’an; the rest of the king’s primary personal guard Sirs Chester, Damien, Anton, Perrin and Oslo, and his attendants Kristof and Lannis; the interrogator Sir Ewen Moll, for the info he had and could obtain; the royal medic Jules, who had already caused a visible improvement to the gash in his lord’s leg; and a score of other tenured, trusted men, with a handful of squires. The last had been carefully chosen by Edric Ryman, who had informed them all of the king’s wishes and their roles in such the previous evening.

Duchess Olessa and her ladies Lisbeth, Ashlie, and Abbimari were also in attendance, as was General Oxworth Gould, acting Commander General of the legion which would remain to hold Ashworth.

The strategists Barron Mikelton and Belgarod Cofferton would return to Aesha’an and remain in Anglica’a respectively: Mikelton to ostensibly serve Altair, and Cofferton to counsel the legion in Ashworth. Mikelton would also establish a relationship between himself, Cain, Tucker, Astor and Niko—those of the rebellious who had, presumably, remained at the Fortress—to surreptitiously maintain contact with their true lord and serve him by any means possible. If Trystane ever hoped to one day take back the Fortress, he had to maintain roots there, however tenuous. There was nothing that guaranteed Altair would accept Mikelton as his own, given how much the strategist knew about Trystane and his tactics; His Grace may suspect he might use his knowledge to mislead. On the other hand, this same knowledge may prove to be exactly what made him seem attractive to Altair, if he could convince the Kartha’ani prince that he was willing to use it “to his new lord’s advantage.”

Just off the Great Feasting Hall was a smaller dining chamber, in which Trystane had ordered all present to be seated on an equal level. There was to be no royal dais, and attendants would not stand at the ready behind their master or mistress; they would all dine together. This was the capacity in which they would be traveling: not as a king and queen and two score soldiers and servants, but as a group of traveling entertainers.

It was a concept that had occurred to Clío in talking with her husband the previous evening.

Up until around a century previous, when travelling entertainers had become prominent, the Ashworth Palace, like many, had kept entertainers in residence; the Ashworths had been known for the particularly large and elaborate shows they staged for visiting nobility. Clío knew that in a cellar somewhere beneath the Palace would be myriad props, costumes, set pieces and masks, left behind by resident entertainers as they passed on and left their art to their traveling counterparts. There would be no need to don the costumes—indeed, plain commoners’ garb whilst traveling would seem more natural—but they could fill a wagon with them and a selection of props to make their ruse more believable.

More importantly, who ever bothered a group of traveling entertainers? They often had little of value to pilfer, and did not possess the power and influence that the nobility and their households did, making them unlikely targets for kidnapping and murder.

Most importantly, traveling entertainers were not a king and queen and two score soldiers and servants, which would of course attract an abundance of unwanted attention.

“We cannot be plain regarding who we are and where we are going,” Trystane had mused. “I do not want Altair attempting to follow us.”

“Will you let him believe you are dead?” Clío had inquired.

“Perhaps. Or I may simply leave him wondering. I have not quite worked that out yet.”

The story General Drake would tell Altair the following day was simply that he had been commanded to return to Aesha’an with the Military to surrender their services to him. He was unsure of where the command originated, and the whereabouts and intentions of Trystane and Clío Maquesta and their household were unknown.

Indeed they were unknown, for the only two returning to Majere who knew the king’s true plan were Barron Mikelton and Moses Drake himself, and they had not been informed exactly where the Maquestas were going. The Military had to be kept as ignorant as Altair of what Trystane was really doing, to prevent tales from being told, and secrets from being unwillfully spilled.

“I will do this with honor, Majesty,” Mikelton had declared the previous day upon learning his king’s intention to plant him within the Fortress. “Er, if I may, I ought not to know, then, where you intend to go—so as to play my part more convincingly.”

Trystane had thought this sensible, and dismissed both Mikelton and Belgarod Cofferton from the counsel. Communication between the Fortress and Trystane would pass through King Julius in Anaemar or Duchess Olessa in Anglica’a, the only two in Morgadesh who would know the king’s true and exact location.

Clío entered the dining hall on the arm of her king, and all within turned from their hushed exchanges and offered deep curtsies and bows.

“Rise,” Trystane commanded as he and Clío took their places at table. “Very soon, you will need to get used to not doing that anyhow.”

Those around the table—which was really several tables arranged to form a square, with the diners seated around the outside perimeter—exchanged glances that were both amused and uncomfortable.

Clío glanced at Trystane, worried. How easy would it be for any one of these people, with their lifetimes of decorum whipped into them—sometimes literally—to unwittingly utter a Your Majesty or My Lord for the wrong ears to ear?

On the other hand, most of their companions in exile would be military men, knights trained to use constant caution in everything they did, every word they spoke.

She made a silent note to have a conversation with her ladies later this evening, and was certain Trystane would do the same with his attendants.

“Please, be seated,” Trystane instructed. “My queen,” he murmured, offering Clío the chair to his left. He remained standing once all were seated. “This will be one of the last times in a while that I will address you all as your king. Beginning in two days, my name will be Dominic Wordsworth. Allow me to introduce my wife, Raena,” he added, resting a hand lightly on Clío’s shoulder.

Clío glanced at him again, this time with pleasant surprise. It made her happy to know she would carry her mother’s name for a time. Trystane would assume that of his great-great-uncle, a onetime High Prince of Aesha’an. They were aliases that would pay homage to who they truly were without shouting it outright.

“Wordsworth…” Ryman, seated directly to Trystane’s right, mused aloud. “So we will be entertainers?” The man looked entertained indeed as he pulled from his dark ale.

“That is correct, Sir” Trystane scanned each face around the table in turn, an amused glint forming in his dark eyes. “Do not look so scandalized; I am sure my pride will recover in time, as will all of yours. Besides, there is much honor in entertaining, making people laugh and forget their troubles for a time.” Sobering, he added, “Though I do not intend to forget mine for long. Commander General Ryman, whose name is also known throughout Morgadesh, will be Edmund Wordsworth—my father.”

Ryman chuckled affectionately. “And I shall be proud to be such, My– son.” The Commander General only just avoided uttering My Lord.

Trystane smiled. “It is only fitting. The rest of you will keep your own names, though I would discourage you from revealing them except when there is absolute need. Those of you who must, already know where we are headed; the rest will be informed once we are at sea.

“This is… an unprecedented decision to which I have come, an undertaking unlike any a usurped king has chosen before, and one that I am certain many of you feel inclined to question. Please be assured that I have my reasons for it, and that this is in no way permanent.

“However, for a time, you will serve in a rather unusual capacity: you will not openly defer to me as royalty, yet you will be expected to follow me in much the same way you always have. Sir Ryman, or rather, Edmund, will see that that is so—just as he always has.

“No one is ever to address either myself or my wife as Majesty, Lord or Lady. You are never to use the names Trystane or Clío, and definitely not Maquesta. Think of it as a command, to be obeyed on pain of death, if it helps you to overcome the unnatural way of it.

“Regarding your dress, you are to take with you only your plainest, most common cuts and fabrics; it may not leave you with much, but we will purchase more at spots along the way. A king’s servants dress more finely than most common folk, and that will not do if we are to pass as entertainers, even very successful ones.

“Is each of you clear on all of this?”

All offered nods and murmurs of acquiescence.

“Good.” Trystane turned to Clío. “My Lady.”

Clío addressed all around the table. “I wish only to express my gratitude for your loyalty, your faith in our king and in me, and your kindness and protection. We face a very difficult journey ahead, and we could never do it alone, or without any one of you. If you should need anything at all, even simple reassurance or a kind word, please feel free to come to me or one of my ladies. I intend to make myself as available to each and every one of you as you have always been to us.

“And now, my aunt, Duchess Olessa, has had a beautiful supper prepared for us. Please eat plenty, drink your fill, be merry and enjoy.”

Cooks and kitchenmaids began streaming in, bearing platters piled high with baked ham, smoked fowl, buttery smashed potatoes, deviled eggs, breads, and all manner of vegetables and greens. These they placed on a long table at the rear of the chamber as appetizers of flatbread and goat cheese were served.

“You are a natural, my love,” Trystane mused softly, now seated beside his wife.

Clío smiled uncertainly. “Am I? Why does it not feel like it?” she replied under her breath, plucking up her wine glass with a shaking hand. It seemed her hands were always trembling these days.

He grasped her other hand under the table and raised it to his lips. “I know, love,” he murmured against her skin. “How I know it does not.”

She gazed at him as he held her hand where it was for long moments. She entertained the distinct impression he was resisting the urge to hide from something. “Trys,” she breathed softly.

“I am fine, love,” he uttered under his breath in reply to her unspoken inquiry.

“Alright.” It was an exchange had countless times before, when she was concerned, but he wished her to leave it be. She took another sip of wine and let out a long slow breath.

“My Lady,” Adora, seated at her left hand, leaned over and whispered. “I believe our Angelique has an admirer,” she giggled quietly.

Clío glanced further down the table several chairs. Angelique was seated furthest to her left of all her ladies, and beside her was Vann Cullerton’s apprentice, Ollie. The two were deep in conversation, appearing to take only a cursory notice of the forty other diners in the chamber.

The queen could not have explained the inexplicable feeling of relief that washed over her upon seeing Angelique with Ollie, even if her very life had depended upon it.

Smiling, she murmured to Adora, “Good. She deserves a distraction from all this. I only hope you and Talia manage to find one as well.”

Indeed, seeing Adora in semi-good spirits, even momentarily, had caught Clío off-guard; the girl had understandably been in a state of absolute despair for days.

Adora sighed and Clío fretted, afraid she had brought the despair crashing soundly down upon her maid once more. “Forgive me, Adora,” she sighed, “I did not mean to…” It was unlike her to speak with so little tact.

“Please, think nothing of it, My Lady,” Adora murmured as Clío’s words trailed off. “I understand what you meant to say; but I am afraid it will be a long time before I am ready for that kind of distraction again.”

Clío laced her fingers through Adora’s under the table, giving her hand a gentle squeeze as she smiled sadly. “Nonetheless, you are immeasurably more resilient than I.”

Adora frowned with shocked curiosity. “My Lady, how so?”

“You simply are,” Clío answered. If she had been forced to watch Trystane die violently as Adora had seen Stephan do, she would have thrown herself from the tower. But that was a subject on which she did not care to elaborate at table.

Adora cast a quick glance at Talia beside her, who held herself somewhat stiffly, her movements polite, yet decidedly mechanic. Leaning closer to Clío, she whispered, “My Lady, what of Ashe? Talia is practically losing her mind with worry for him.”

“I do not know,” Clío murmured behind the rim of her glass. She thought a moment as she sipped slowly at her wine. “But I will ask the king to attempt to find out, if there is a way.”

Adora nodded slowly, her eyes dropping to her as-yet-untouched plate.

Talia uttered something absently to Adora, and as the two slipped into quiet conversation, Clío abruptly turned to her husband. “Darling…”

“What is it sweetling?” Trystane implored, clearly having noticed the urgency in her tone.

“I just…” What had she intended to say? “I love you; that is all.”

He kissed her softly and as intimately as they dared under all those eyes. “And I love you, my beautiful queen.”

Clío smiled and felt herself blush as she was vaguely aware of the subtle glances cast in their direction.

“They had better get used to it,” Trystane teased softly, as if having heard her thoughts.

Clío’s flush deepened as she giggled, images of the things they had done at the center of the Swan’s Maze flashing through her mind. “Love, let us visit the maze tonight—very late,” she requested on impulse.

Trystane leaned back in his chair, regarding her with something oddly akin to pride as he considered. “We could… or there is another place.”

“‘Another place’? Which one?”

“In the Northwood.”

Clío immediately remembered waking in his arms beneath a massive willow, the early morning sun touching her cheek. She had still been a maiden then, but desperately wishing she was not. Nodding slowly, a grin spreading across her face, she mused softly, “Yes.” Leaning closer, she teased, “Let us go there and do all the things we wanted to that night.”

The fire in his eyes leapt as high as the sun.

Suddenly, Clío was aware of a liveried guardsman making his way hurriedly to the side of General Gould, seated beside Olessa on the opposite side of the chamber.

Gould listened as the guardsman whispered something in his ear, then nodded and motioned for the young man to go on about whatever it was he wished to do. Turning to Olessa the general politely excused himself and began making his way forward.

Ryman frowned as Gould approached, having read something in the expression of the latter. “Please, excuse me, Majesties,” he murmured gravely. He rose from his chair and met Gould midway, the two exiting the chamber deep in hushed conversation.

Clío glanced at Trystane, who watched them through dark eyes narrowed in thought.

Her gaze was abruptly torn away as an angry bellow sounded in the corridor immediately upon Ryman’s exiting.

All eyes swung toward the sound, then to the king, who simply gave a dismissive gesture.

Clío set her empty wine cup down and Adora, attentive as ever, motioned for the nearest serving girl to refill it.

“I wonder what that was about?” Adora whispered as if to herself. Even Talia and Angelique in their distraction had glanced, startled, toward the exit.

Clío noticed Olessa gazing at Trystane curiously as well, but he still appeared nearly unfazed.

“Never mind,” she instructed softly.

Moments later, Ryman reappeared, hurrying to Trystane’s side. “Majesty,” he uttered in a hushed voice. “We have found him.”

“Are you certain?” Trystane implored.

“Quite. Gould and a man are escorting him to a tower cell as we speak.”

“Keep him there, and have him questioned. I want to know if there are more, and I want names.”

“Of course, Majesty.”


“Majesty?” the commander general stopped short in the act of turning to leave again.

“Make it clear that I will see him myself later on, so he had best be forthright.”

With a dip of his head, Ryman hurried off, taking Ewen Moll with him this time.

Trystane muttered a curse that drew another startled glance from his wife.

“Forgive me, love,” he murmured, raising her hand to his lips once more. “It appears I have unpleasant duties to attend this night.”

Clío smiled softly, with little mirth. “Where shall I wait for you?”

“In your chambers. I will come for you when–” He broke off, reconsidering. “No. I want you to come with me.”

Clío’s eyebrows shot up. “I am sorry?”

“I want him to see you. I want him to know exactly who he has hurt, and how little she deserves it.” His eyes met hers. “If you will allow it.”

She cocked her head to the side, looking a question at him. “Of course, but… who…?”

“One of Altair’s insiders.”

Clío gazed at the door to the tower cell, knowing the man on the other side of it would lose his head for high treason in the morning. The knowledge brought with it a nauseating mixture of disgust, sorrow and furious anticipation.

“Wait,” the king commanded, stopping one of the guards in the act of reaching for the door to open it. He turned to the queen. “You do not have to do this, love,” he reminded her softly.

“You had your reasons for asking it, did you not?”

“Yes. But—”

“Then I will do it; I know you will not force it on me. And anyway,”—she took a deep breath and released it—“I also want him to see who he has hurt.”

He paused for a fraction of a moment before nodding to the men flanking the heavy iron-banded door to admit them.

“Their Majesties, the king and queen,” the guard announced.

Three sets of eyes within turned in surprise at the declaration of the queen’s presence—it was unusual enough for kings to show themselves in cells high or low—but none saw fit to question.

Clío’s attention, however, was riveted upon the man seated in shackles upon the one chair in the cell, his eyes glued to the cold stone floor. No.

As she had agreed to do, she stopped just inside the door without a word, fighting to hide her furious dismay as she kept her eyes on the young prisoner.

Ryman moved to stand beside her, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

The man slid out of his chair and sank to his knees, his chin dropping to his chest.

Trystane stopped in front of him, staring down at him disdainfully a moment. “You bow to me now?” he uttered at length. “Where were those bows when Altair Rothford was invading my castle? Where were they when he was opening my father’s throat? Get up.” The iron grip that Trystane held upon his composure almost without fail remained strong, but his words were caged in ice.

The young man stood awkwardly, keeping his eyes cast upon the floor.

“Eldrin Dane,” Trystane murmured. “Your sister serves the queen.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Spare me your feigned loyalties, Dane. Your sister trusts you; she tells you things, does she not?”

Clío’s eyes slid nervously to her husband, as did those of the young prisoner before him.

“No,” the king said in answer to the unspoken question in the air. “It is not a crime to trust a traitor—especially when that traitor is blood. To some, blood is everything. Let me ask you something, Sir: Are you aware that your sister was raped? Are you aware that she watched the man she loved—an honorable knight—die? Rothford put a dagger in his chest right in front of her; are you aware of that, Sir?”

The horrified look on Dane’s face was answer enough. Clío almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

“What do you think this would do to your sister, Dane?”

Dane swallowed hard. “She was never…”

“She was never supposed to find out, because all of this was supposed to end differently; right,” Trystane acknowledged dismissively. “But instead, it ended this way. And now you will die with your sister on your conscience. Your sister, who will be mortified to discover she unwittingly took part in this atrocity.” Stepping closer to his captive, he lowered his voice in that calm-before-the-storm way that he had. “Now, here is where, for me, it gets truly personal: my wife, your queen, loves Lady Adora, loves her as much as you should; more than that, even. It pains her to see you standing where you are as much as it would your sister herself. Forget your king for a moment. Are you comfortable in the knowledge that you have hurt your queen?”

Trystane took a breath, making a visible effort to regain the composure that was subtly, yet clearly, slipping.

Dane remained silent, his eyes again downcast.

Releasing a disgusted sigh, Trystane moved to the tiny window on the other side of the small cell and gazed out at the night as he considered. At length he turned and addressed Ryman. “Has he openly confessed his crimes, Sir?”

“No,” Ryman answered. “He has not denied them, but he has not confessed them either.”

“Do you have names?”

“We had not yet worked around to that, Majesty.”

Trystane thought another moment. “Alright.” Turning, he motioned for Gould and Moll to leave the room; they did, but not without curious glances at Ryman, who only nodded. Moving back around in front of Dane, Trystane continued, “I will not execute a man without his knowing for exactly what I do it. You have a choice: either you can confess to me what you have done, as well as the names of all others you know to have been involved, and I have your head for high treason—assisting in the murder of the king and the Crown Prince and the usurping of the throne of Aesha’an; or you can refuse, and I sentence you to a much less quick and clean death—for accessorizing the murder of the unborn heir to the throne.”

Dane’s sorrowful eyes shot up to the king’s icy ones in absolute horror. His mouth worked as if trying to form a response, but he failed as confusion slowly morphed into sickening comprehension.

“You see,” Trystane said, “when you decide to commit a crime, it often turns into other crimes you know nothing about, yet of which you are still guilty, for having participated. Do you understand the implication I make? You had better, for I will not say it aloud.”

Dane managed a small feeble nod.

Trystane simply stared at him, waiting with the air of a lion about to pounce on its prey.

Clío was dimly aware of the way Ryman tensed and gripped his sword hilt, as she eyed the prisoner.

Finally, Dane dropped back onto his chair with a sigh that spoke of the weight of the world on his shoulders. “I will tell you everything.”

Trystane shook his head slowly. “Tell it to my men,” he ordered softly. “I cannot look at you any longer.”

Clío continued to stare at the man as Trystane turned and moved toward her.

Her heart stopped when Dane’s eyes slid back up to the king, for what she saw there. She opened her mouth to cry out, but could not before Dane lunged, clearly intent on wrapping the short chain that hung between his shackled hands around Trystane’s throat.

The queen screamed as Ryman seized her arm and yanked her around behind him, drawing his sword with his other hand. Trystane, who had spun to face his would-be assailant, had his drawn as well, and pointed at the young soldier’s own throat. Dane’s hands fell limply in front of him before he could even touch his mark.

He glared in frustration and defiance. “My father died serving yours!” he shouted. “He died protecting your mother from assassins! My own mother was so distraught, she nearly killed herself!” He flashed a cold, mirthless grin. “I will not die before I perform the service which I intended first.”

Clío felt herself blanch at the frivolity of it. When she glanced at her husband, even his features registered utter incredulity for a fraction of a moment.

Trystane murmured a curse under his breath; Clío thought she heard gods-damned insane. “And you thought Altair would bring you some kind of justice because your father did exactly what he had enlisted to do—what he wanted to do? What kind of brainwashing tactics has that madman used on you? Clearly, you underestimate with whom you are dealing—on both sides.” Sweeping furiously from the cell, he commanded, “Get what information you can from him. If it is adequate, send him to the block at first light on the morrow; if it is not, fucking burn him.”

“Stupid,” Trystane was murmuring.

Clío glanced at his reflection in the looking glass as Talia ran a brush through the queen’s hair. She had already sent Adora and Angelique off to bed; she only really needed one maid at the moment, and she had not yet worked out what she was going to say to Adora anyhow. She only knew she wanted to be the one to break the horrid news to the girl, and had said as much to her husband as they made their way back to her chambers. He had maintained an almost brooding silence most of the way, seeming to look inward more than out, and now he muttered to himself. “Childish and bloody ridiculous.”

“Anyone who would try something so foolish would have to be,” she remarked dryly.

“Not him,” Trystane answered absently. “Me.”

Talia stopped brushing as Clío turned to look a stunned question at Trystane. “Talia, go on to bed if you wish,” she dismissed her maid softly. “And forget you heard that.”

“Heard what, My Lady?” Talia replied innocently.

Clío offered her maid an appreciative look as she set down the silver-backed brush and swept from the bedchamber, offering a curtsy to her mistress, and in turn to her lord, who did not notice.

“Trys,” Clío inquired quietly once Talia had closed the door softly behind her, “whatever do you mean?”

“You should not have seen that. You should not have seen any of that.” He maintained the pacing of the chamber he had not stopped since they entered. “I should not have taken you there, for that.”

Clío smiled sadly. “My love, I went willingly.” And since when are you prone to melodrama?

Since the melodrama was forced upon him.

She had to admit, she could not get the ugly image of Adora’s brother burning out of her head, and the fact that Trystane would order such was jarring. But she would have to get used to the fact that Trystane, her husband, and Trystane the king were sometimes going to be two different people. She had chosen to go with him, knowing it would be hardly be pleasant.

So long as he is king, there will always be someone who wants to murder him, and there will always be someone whose death he must command. Always.

“Maybe it is best we go away, only not for the reasons I first thought. I am not fit to rule the land.”

Clío sprang smoothly up from where she had remained gazing tiredly at him from her vanity stool. “Trystane Maquesta, I will not have you saying such things!”

He shot her a startled look, and what might have been irritation morphed into something like speculation. She rarely addressed him so starkly or with such indignation.

She sighed. “I am sorry, love. Just… please do not speak that way.”

He shook his head. “I was not meant to wear this crown,” he murmured almost as if to himself.

“Yes, you were! Do you know how I know that you were? Because you are. This is what was meant to be; it should never have happened so… brutally, but it is what is.” She dropped her eyes to her hands which toyed idly with the rings she was never without. Tears sprang to her eyes. “I do not always like it either, but… it is unlike you to be this way; I have seen parts of you now that I never thought to see, never wanted to see, and it scares me.” She raised her eyes back to his. “But there is no one better to lead this kingdom than you—certainly not that spineless bloody monster and my drunken turncloak cousin!”

She was weeping openly now, but through her tears she saw the closest thing she had ever seen to shame etched into his beautiful features. He came to her and pulled her close. She swallowed her tears and pressed her ear to his chest where she could hear his heartbeat, the rhythm of his breathing. She felt him nuzzle her hair as he so often did in bed, and he simply held her for long moments.

At length, he sighed softly. “I am the one who should be sorry, darling,” he murmured into her hair. “You are right, as you most always are.”—she felt his small smile at that last—“It is not like me to bemoan my fate. It is only…” All the tension in his body suddenly faded, and he seemed to wilt; this was a side of him she had seen many times, and was in fact the only one in the world who ever did, except for—very occasionally—Edric Ryman. “I feel like a little boy whose ship captain father suddenly fell overboard one day, and left the thing in my hands; and I have never once touched the helm. I know the ship like the back of my own hand, but I do not know how to sail it, and there’s mutiny aboard.”

She was quiet a moment, considering the analogy. “Well… I suppose that is more or less what you are.” She raised her head to behold him with a mischievous glint in her eye. “Except you are very much not a little boy.”

His dark eyes smiled as he searched hers. “I am sorry I am taking you overboard with me.”

She kissed him softly. “Trystane, I do not care if you take me to the bottom of the Crystalline or to the very top of the Goddess of the Sea,”—it was the highest peak in Morgadesh, rising alone above the otherwise gently-rolling western coast in the south of Aesha’an—“I will follow you anywhere.”

2.4. Altair sat the throne of Aesha’an, only half listening to the man who knelt before him, who wrung his hands as he implored the new king to open the gates of Majere so that trade and travel may resume.

It had been well over a fortnight since he took the Fortress; Silas Cliven had advised him last afternoon that, since there had yet been no open rebellion in the city, indicating that the citizens were, at the least, resigned to the new regime, he should begin holding court—else, there likely would be rebellion, and very soon. Commoners did not take kindly to a king who held himself aloof from the rest of the kingdom.

Altair agreed that he should at least keep up appearances, and so, today, had opened the Dragon Gate. That did not mean he had to like it.

In any case, he was in a dark mood this day.

It had been four days since the woman, his primary leverage, had escaped; his future bride had yet to emerge from her chambers, though he had ordered her captivity at an end once she had signed the marriage contract; there was still no sign of the vanished kennel boy; he had put the entire household to the question—sometimes personally, many times messily—and they all bloody refused to give up a speck of information. He was certain that Cain, the only remaining falconer in the keep, knew something, if not everything, but he had yet to wring it out of him. He kept the boy alive to that end alone—well, that, and the fact that he was the only one in residence who knew his way around the roost.

It had been folly to put the blade in the houndmaster’s throat. He had brought only knights, soldiers, with him; he had men attempting to bring the kennels back under control, but they were still knights after all, not houndmasters, and the beasts were as yet not feeling particularly obedient toward their new handlers.

Maybe I will simply put them all to the sword. He had no plans to go hunting anytime soon, and there were plenty of cats roaming the grounds to keep the rat population down. He could acquire new dogs eventually.

Most infuriating of all, he had seen and heard nothing—nothing!—of Trystane Maquesta in days. Altair was reasonably sure he was in Ashworth, for the last thing he had heard of the Royal Military said as much, in a letter from Trystane himself as he led the men back toward Majere before his wife’s great escape. By that time, the military had to have known what the situation at home was, yet even once those bastards had whisked the bitch away, there had been no indication of any further movement on the capital. No messages, no men spotted scouting the surrounding area, no army raising a hint of dust on the horizon.

When that gods-damned Capital Gate guard had come to him with news of the “exiles” as he lay in his bed reluctantly letting Gavin’s personal physician tend to the dagger wound in his thigh, Altair had briefly considered sending men after the escapees. He had dismissed the idea almost immediately. No. Let them come to me. She had become a great bore, and as useful as her remaining in his possession would have been, he could hold this castle without her.

And yet—nothing.

Ashworth and the Lady Olessa were of little concern to him as of yet. He needed to deal with Trystane and Clío first and foremost; then he would find a way to bring Anglica’a to heel.

Suddenly a thought occurred to him, and he leaned over to speak quietly to Cliven standing just to his right. “Commander General, send word to Olessa that if she will give up her niece and her nephew-by-marriage, she can be Queen of Anglica’a once more—and see her daughter again.”

Cliven regarded him with open shock. “‘Give them up’? Majesty, how do you propose—”

“Figure it out!” Altair hissed, before impatiently waving at the man—some minor noble from some town in Aesha’an or another, who had stopped speaking with a small frown as Altair’s attention turned elsewhere—to go on.

Cliven gave him another doubtful glance, then reluctantly turned and swept in silence from the chamber to carry out his orders.

The nobleman hesitated before clearing his throat uncomfortably and continuing, “I must admit, Majesty, that, aside from the need for trade to resume, I also have a more self-serving reason to ask that you re-open the gates: I should very much like to return to the side of my wife and children, who remained at home while I came to Majere.” The man—the son of the aged Duke of Kantor in the northeast, that was it—had been staying at the duke’s temporary estate in the capital on some sort of business when the gates closed.

Altair stared dully at the man a moment before declaring simply that he would think on it. As he spoke, his eyes fell on another man who was hurrying up the center aisle of the audience chamber directly toward the throne: a royal messenger with a look of nervous urgency about him.

“Majesty,” he breathed at he fell to his knees before Altair. “I apologize for the interruption; I was sent from the Capital Gates with most urgent news: the Royal Military has returned. Their leader bears a white banner.”

Even as he silently exalted at the idea of an Aesha’ani surrender, Altair’s eyes narrowed as he came to his feet. “‘Their leader’?” he barked. “Not their Lord Commander?”

“His G—” the Aesha’ani messenger began, clearly only just stopping himself from using a title that came more naturally to him. “—Lordship is not with them. Or, if he is, he has not yet shown himself.”

Altair quickly descended the four stairs from the dais on which the throne was situated and brushed past the Kantori noble, ignoring the look of frustrated consternation that flashed across the noble's face. “My lords and ladies, that will be all for today,” he announced almost as an afterthought. To the messenger, he said, “go back to the Gates and tell the master of the guard to have them send one man—one man—forward to parlay with me in half an hour.” Exiting the keep, he turned in the direction of the stables.

The stablehand gave a severe start and leapt to his feet as Altair himself burst violently through the entrance. Normally, he would send a man to fetch his mount for him, but today, there had been no time. “Ready Fire,” he commanded. “Now!”

“Yes, Majesty,” the boy blurted as he scrambled to comply.

Altair paced impatiently as he waited. The Royal Military, come back? Without a word? Without Trystane. There was no reason at all that Trystane Maquesta would ever hide himself within his ranks. Whatever he was, he was no coward, something Altair admitted grudgingly to himself, if to no one else.

The Kartha’ani prince made a sound deep in his throat that resembled a growl, earning a severely apprehensive glance from the flustered stablehand.

It was not right; it was not customary. Something was amiss—something much less obvious than a pretty prince.

Furiously, he snatched Fire’s reins from the stablehand when he led the huge black warhorse forward, leaping up into the saddle and healing the animal to a trot. He left the stable as quickly as he had entered it, without another word.

Fire’s hooves thundered noisily across the already-lowered drawbridge that connected the inner and outer Dragon Gates, attracting startled, curious, and even fearful stares from those in the endless flow of Majeri awaiting admittance at court. Murmurs arose, some simply wondering, others expressing hesitant recognition of the man in the saddle. Those making their way across in the other direction jumped hurriedly out of the way, one man narrowly preventing himself from toppling into the mammoth moat below, with its deadly steel stalagmites protruding from the bottom. Altair ignored them all as he tore out into the Wooden Grove toward the city.

A hundred yards outside the Capital Gates—which had been hastily thrown open at the sudden appearance of Altair and snapped shut again as soon as he had passed through—he reined Fire, flanks heaving from the sprint, to a brisk walk as a lone rider emerged from the southern edge of the Heart of the Sisters ahead. The man indeed carried a white flag fluttering from a short pole thrust behind the pommel of his saddle. Another hundred yards and Fire stood nose-to-nose with the other man’s mount.

Giving a stiff mounted bow, the rider introduced himself. “I am General Moses Drake, Majesty. I bring the Aesha’ani Royal Military home. Within those woods stand over ten thousand men, waiting to serve you.”

“On whose command?” Altair demanded flatly.

Drake answered without hesitation. “I am unsure of where the order originated, My Lord. Trystane Maquesta’s whereabouts are also unknown to me at this time.”

Altair’s eyes narrowed. “‘Unknown’? You take orders from an invisible man? From whose lips did you, personally, hear the command to return?”

Drake’s narrowed as well, though where Altair was suspicious, Drake was clearly irritated. In a tight voice, he replied, “Respectfully, My Lord, I take orders from any who stand above me. These came from King Julius of Anaemar, after he decided he was going home as well. I am a soldier; I simply do as I am told.”

“You are not Commander General.”

It was not a question, rather, a statement, but Drake caught the meaning. “No; but I served directly under Edric Ryman.”

“Who is where?”

“Dead, Majesty,” Drake responded a touch curtly. “Killed in your ambush in Anglica’a some weeks ago. His… Trystane has not been seen since.”

Altair let out a short sigh of irritation. He was going to have to do something about these Aesha’ani with their near-slips of the tongue. They had a new king now, and their princes were gone; one was in his grave, and the other was…? “And what of Ashworth?”

“The Lady Olessa has retained a legion of soldiers at the Palace, Anglica’an mostly. Her allegiance is undecided as of yet, however she is open to negotiation. Her foremost concern is ensuring the safety of her daughter.”

“Haylia is, and will remain, safe.” As long as she behaved and served her purpose. “Has the Duchess learned of the betrothal?”

A steely glint flashed in Drake’s eyes, but all he said was, “She has.”

“Yet her ‘allegiance’ is still ‘undecided’?”

Drake affected an apologetic expression. “She only wishes to rule Ashworth in peace, as she has these past two years, and to know that the princess is well taken care of. She is a ruler, but above that even, she is a mother who fears for her only child. You come alone to this parlay, knowing there is an army standing at the ready behind me; that is testament to your… bravery and integrity, and so, surely, you can understand.”

Altair gestured casually at the walls of Majere at his own back, though anger flared within him. “My own men walk those walls, General, and there are twice as many patrolling the Fortress barriers. Should you try anything, this city will erupt into battle, and many innocent people will die.” It was delivered as a cold, hard fact. If people, whoever they were, had to lose their lives so he could hold the capital, so be it.

A hint of a sardonic smile came and went across Drake’s features as he noncommittally murmured, “As you say, Your Majesty.”

Altair considered a moment. Fuck Olessa; she can have her legion. I will deal with her in due time. It could not wait too long. As long as the Duchess of Ashworth remained in limbo, he had better assume the whole of Anglica’a would as well, and the lords north of the border could rally men of their own to the former queen and cause a civil war. But that was one reason putting an Ashworth on the Aesha’ani throne next to his would come in handy. Keeping a grip on the southern Sister remained Altair’s first priority. Where in bloody hells is Trystane?

“The Navy?” It had been a thorn in his side since taking the Fortress: not knowing the intentions of the Aesha’ani Navy, and presently having none of his own to send after them.

“Patrolling the coast as they always have, My Lord, on the orders of the Lord Commander.”

Altair leaned forward in his saddle. “I am your Lord Commander now, General,” he reminded the man icily.

“King, duke, High Prince and Lord Commander all, Majesty. It indeed speaks of your… bold bravery, to take on so much,” Drake mused flatly.

“I believe it is you who grows too bold, Moses Drake,” Altair warned quietly. Within the general’s pauses, he could hear what the man really wanted to say: where he spoke the word bravery aloud, he spoke stupidity silently.

Drake’s eyes dropped deferentially. “Forgive me, Majesty.”

Altair stared hard at him through narrowed eyes; Drake returned his level gaze, yet offered no more obstinance. He would require careful observation, to ensure the Lord Commander he served was the right one. “I want those ships ashore within three days, General. Their captains will swear fealty just as the rest of you will.”

With that, he wheeled Fire and returned the way he had come.

Haylia Ashworth Maquesta, former High Princess of Anglica’a, former Crown Princess of the Sister Kingdoms, widow of Prince Liam of Aesha’an, would nonetheless become queen this night, taking the name Haylia Ashworth Rothford.

The princess stared at her reflection in the looking glass, musing absently on how that name put knots in the tongue. Fitting.

At least she could see her mother again soon; that was what her intended had promised her anyway. She could not truly be sure.

She glanced at Celeste’s reflection over her shoulder and tried to return the feeble, haunted smile her maid offered. The girl was the closest thing to family Haylia had left now. Still, she felt utterly alone.

Her husband and father-by-marriage were dead.

She had been cut off completely from her mother for weeks, and whatever Altair said, Haylia had no reason to believe that would change.

Her cousin—her beautiful, sweet cousin, who she had at once loved and envied so strongly—was gone, taking with her one of Haylia’s maids as well as her own. Celeste had told her what had happened that night, and days later, the princess still was not sure at whom she was most angry—Clío, for escaping this hell; Angelique, for abandoning her; or herself, for failing to simply awaken, for what she really felt toward the other two was pure and simple jealousy. She was reasonably sure the last was the closest to the truth.

Her ladies had been whittled down to one, from four. Two had betrayed her utterly and died for it; another had run off. Not that she could blame Angelique—who wouldn’t want out of here now? And she knew what the girl felt for her cousin’s husband. Their king.

The Royal Military had returned today. Without him. The Maquesta dynasty was over.

Celeste was all she had left. At least she was still by her mistress’ side, yet the profound loneliness persisted. Haylia did not doubt for a moment that she would be taken from her as well, later. Maybe sooner.

And what would Altair do with his new queen when she failed to become pregnant, or lost whatever babies she did conceive?

A soft knock came at her chamber door, followed by a messenger in Kartha’ani livery. “His Majesty summons his bride to court,” the dark-eyed young man announced formally, “for the marriage ceremony.” He stood rigidly, waiting to escort her to the Hall of Banners, where the Aesha’ani princes had taken wives for nearly eleven centuries, for as long as Majere and the Great Royal Fortress had stood.

Haylia turned mechanically in the elaborately beaded and embroidered white gown into which Celeste had laboriously assisted her. The thing weighed thrice as much as most, and really called for at least two extra sets of hands to don. Haylia was unsure if it was the haste in which this wedding had been arranged or Altair’s twisted idea of a jest—or maybe he was trying to convey some sort of point—but it was the same bridal frock in which she had married Liam. It, and the gauzy veil that reached almost to the floor. The ruby- and diamond-encrusted crown that sat atop it, along with the chandelier earrings and heavy necklace that matched it, had last been worn by Adonna. The Queen’s Jewels usually waited until her coronation day, but since Haylia’s would take place immediately after her wedding, she wore them now.

A royal betrothal traditionally covered six to eight moon’s turns at least, and her coronation took place a fortnight after the wedding. But then, little in Haylia’s life had yet worked out according to tradition.

Her escort offered her his arm, and she took it slowly, drawing in a trembling breath and releasing it deliberately. Celeste took up the gown’s train—another thing that should have been done by two—and followed her out.

I should be in black now, not white, she thought, though she had not had the presence of mind to wear much other than a dressing gown in her all-too-brief period of mourning. A wave of nausea enveloped her suddenly, and she fiercely fought back the urge to burst into desperate tears, be sick, or both. Only years of practice at schooling her features and keeping her back straight and hands steady, whether she wanted to or not, allowed her to win that battle.

Haylia glanced at the young man on whose arm her right hand rested. “What is your name, Sir?” she asked softly. He was quite pretty: tall and well-built, with deep brown eyes and a kind smile.

He flashed her a vaguely embarrassed look, but his answer was polite. “I am Dominic Hale, Grace. But… My Lady, I am only a…”

She glanced at the shortsword on his hip. “Do you know how to use that, Dominic?” She knew that at the moment, he only wore it in a ceremonial capacity, but perhaps…

Following her gaze, he nodded. “Passibly, My Lady.”

“Then I shall have you knighted,” Haylia announced, “and appointed to my personal guard.” She ignored the stunned, blinking stare the young messenger shot her before decorum averted it, as they continued on toward the Hall of Banners.

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