The Exile

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An Exile Begins

Half a day’s journey to the north, after the sun had risen, set, and risen again, a different Ashworth prepared to break yet more stunning news to what would be, at first, the exact same disbelieving stare.

“My Lady, I must say, the curiosity is nearly killing me,” Adora remarked as Clío led her away from the preparations to depart the capital that had every corridor and courtyard within the palace walls afflury with activity. Near the stables, horses were being shoed and saddled; carts near the kitchens were being loaded with foodstuffs; squires were jumping on their masters’ orders, carrying messages and hauling supplies; and before the Swan Gate, king’s men and queen’s ladies were tending mounts and issuing orders of their own surrounding a restless Wroughtiron and a serene Opal. Clío and Adora had made it all the way across the palace grounds, past the Swan’s Maze, and were approaching the Falcon Gate at the rear before the maid had spoken. “Are you well?”

Clío glanced at Adora wryly before nodding to the men attending the gates, who moved to open them for the queen. The women passed through, trailed discreetly by Dereck and Wendell, the closest thing Clío had to a personal guard since hers had been slaughtered, commandeered or made to vanish. “As well as can be expected, for now.”

Still, she waited until she and Adora had reached the shade of the Northwood before stopping and turning to her maid, whose green eyes were round with barely-contained concern, even as she frowned slightly.

A thousand ways to begin tumbled through Clío’s head in a matter of seconds, all rejected, until finally, she sighed. “Adora, there’s no way to phrase this that is nice, or pleasant, or delicate, so I will simply come right out with it. I wish you could go on not knowing at all, but you have a right to know it, and as it is, I have already done you the cowardly injustice of delaying it an entire day. Excuses or no… ” She trailed off as she realized she was prattling on uselessly, and paused as Adora swallowed hard, her frown becoming one of fear.

“What is it, My Lady?” Adora inquired faintly.

“Eldrin is… gone, Adora.” Coming right out with it was not going as planned. Somehow Clío could not force the words from her tongue, standing here looking at this sweet girl who was so dear to her, and whose only “fault” was one Clío shared: giving herself to a man before marriage because she loved him so desperately.

Adora’s frown morphed again, into confusion. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?” she asked, but something in her face told Clío the girl knew very well what she meant.

Only, she knew but half of it.

You have put it off too long already. Vexed at her own lack of a spine, Clío literally stiffened her back and made herself say it: “He was executed yesterday morning, for high treason.”

Adora’s face froze, and she stared at the queen as if in complete incomprehension. “High… what?”

Tears suddenly sprang to Clío’s eyes as she sensed a nearly palpable impression of horror emanating from the other woman. And she still hadn’t told her all of it. “Adora… I am so sorry. But he conspired against the crown.” Adora’s eyes, which had dropped to the grass at her feet, shot back up in shock, and she blanched. “Altair filled his head with hatred and promises, and he convinced Eldrin to help him, as he did quite a few of Gavin’s men. Gavin was… well-loved, but he was still a king, and kings always have blood on their hands–” she stopped, abruptly realizing that she was the one losing her composure while Adora simply stared in stunned silence. Wiping tears away impatiently with the back of her hands, Clío forced calm upon herself and finished. “I am the one who requested he be taken away with no farewells, because it seemed… less… cruel.” Spoken aloud, now, the notion sounded utterly ridiculous.

Adora was silent and motionless so long, Clío was afraid she had been taken by the walking death, which sometimes overcame those who received news too awful to bear. Then she dropped slowly to the grass, her full skirts gripped tightly in her fists as they puffed up around her. “How… how was it done?” she inquired at length.

“On the block, by the duchess’ best headsman. It was clean, and quick, I am told. He was cooperative, at the end. He gave the king every name he knew, and they have also been… put to death.”

“All beheaded?”

Clío frowned. Why…? “Some. Some were hanged; others were… burned.”

Adora appeared to be forcing her breakfast to stay down. “Well, at least it was quick,” she murmured. “At least he– My Lady, how could he do this?!” The last was delivered as a high pitched shriek as Adora suddenly and completely lost her head. It was like a delicate crystal bubble that had been filling with water, higher and higher, pressure building until it abruptly shattered, spraying razor-sharp shards for leagues.

Clío dropped to her knees right atop Adora’s skirts, shoving her own out of the way as she gathered the crumpling girl up in her arms. It was a rather un-queenly gesture, but Clío hardly cared. “Darling, it took many men to pull this off; Eldrin was far from alone. He was manipulated, and brainwashed, and who knows what else?” Clío knew it couldn’t possibly be much comfort, but she had to say something. She remembered Adora and Talia sitting like this with her near the Dragon Gate at the Fortress; it seemed like a year ago now. I had no reason at all to weep, compared to this. No reason at all.

Trystane had come home, in a manner of speaking; or at least, she had. But Stephan and Eldrin would never come home again. Adora did not deserve this.

Clío didn’t realize she had spoken the last aloud until Adora gasped and sighed and spoke through her tears. “Not a one of us deserves this. Everything’s been turned upside down and backwards: mothers and fathers and brothers dropping like horseflies, women dropping from towers, kennelmasters and falconers risking their lives like knights, handmaidens falling for kings, and—”

Clío wouldn’t have thought much of that last—it happened all the time—except for the way Adora cut herself off and swallowed her tears as if she had said something damning. Clío waited in the deafening silence that suddenly replaced Adora’s sobs.

“Forgive me, Majesty; I don’t know why I said that,” the maid finally muttered feebly.

Clío pulled back enough to look a question at the girl, cocking her head slightly to one side in interest. “Forgive you for what, Adora?” The queen did find it a bit odd that her lady would mention that, specifically, alongside everything else.

Adora regarded her with rueful apology etched in her features. “Oh, it’s none of my affairs. Please, My Lady, just forget I said it. Please?”

Clío smiled sadly. “Forget you said what? Besides, we did not come out here for that.”

Adora seemed to remember the news Clío had given her moments ago, and her face crumpled as if to dissolve into tears again; but before she could, it hardened into deliberate resolve. “He committed treason. The punishment for that is clear.”

Adora’s dogged words were belied not a half hour hence, when she and the queen arrived back at the Swan Gate courtyard, where men were beginning to mount up and horses and carts were falling into line. At her first sight of the king who had ordered her brother’s death, the maid let loose a blood curdling shriek and sank to the gravel beneath her.

Trystane’s arms moved instinctively to catch Adora around the waist as she crumpled. Every blade in the courtyard flashed in the mid-morning sun as it was trained in their direction, only to waver or drop altogether when they realized they bore steel toward the king, the queen and an unconscious lady-in-waiting.

“Adora,” Clío breathed, reaching to grasp the girl’s hand.

“Put up your weapons,” a nearby Ryman ordered gruffly as he turned from Arrow and strode toward Trystane to relieve him of his human burden.

“Take her to the infirmary, and see that she is well,” Trystane instructed the Commander-General. “We will not leave without her.”

“Find her something that will make her sleep a long while,” Clío added. “We will put her in a wagon, and tether Rosa to it.” She turned tiredly to her other two ladies, who hovered anxiously nearby. “Talia, stay with her; Angelique, see that supplies are rearranged, so a bed can be made up for her in a wagon.”

Trystane’s dark eyes had not left his wife’s face since Adora screamed; his pretty features had a decidedly haunted cast to them.

When she folded herself into his arms, she was unsure whether it was to offer comfort or receive it. She only felt lucky he was there, whichever it was.

At length, it dawned on her that she was wondering just which, and whose, handmaiden had fallen for him, and what exactly, if anything, she was to do about it.

By mid-morning, all was ready for departure. Silks and velvets had been replaced by summerweight woolens and cotton, reds and purples with muted blues, yellows, browns and greys; diamonds and pearls had been stowed safely away in purses within lockboxes within unadorned chests, stowed beneath false bottoms in some of the wagons.

Commander General Edric Ryman—who would become simply Master Edmund Wordsworth, proprietor of The Tragic Comedy, a group of traveling entertainers, immediately upon passing through the Swan Gate—would lead the small procession. His son and daughter-by-marriage, Dominic and Raena, would follow closely behind, tailed by all their fellow “performers.” Mounted ladies and bodymen would be followed by Rosa, Adora’s piebald mare, led by a small wagon—itself pulled by a strong stallion—within which her mistress lay in a dreamtea-induced sleep, sheltered from both the sun and her troubles for the time being. Then would come the knights and squires, minus a half-dozen outriders, with supply wagons and two carts full of colorful costumes and props bringing up the rear.

But first came the farewells, arguably one of the hardest parts of a long, difficult and indefinite journey such as this. Ryman, Trystane and Clío stood gripping the reigns of Arrow, Wroughtiron and Opal, with Duchess Olessa and General Gould. Clío clung to her aunt as if she might never see her again, nevertheless trying not to think about the fact that she might never see her again.

“Be easy, my child,” Olessa murmured, hugging her niece close and stroking her hair soothingly. “Everything will work out as it should in the end.”

“I wish I did not feel as if it were too late for that,” Clío replied forlornly. “Lives have been lost, and lands have been taken, which is not as it should be.”

“Maybe it is not as it should be,” Olessa agreed, “but it is what is. The higher one stands on the mountain, the thinner the air and the father the fall.” Pulling back to look Clío in the eye with tears in her own, the duchess smiled sadly. “We are the privileged few; but with every privilege comes a tradeoff. We all do as we must, and you, my dear, are already a fine queen, with a king who prefers you over a throne.”

“Are you saying I should count my blessings?” Clío inquired dubiously.

“We have to, dear, especially in times like these. Otherwise we would all go mad. Enough of us do as it is,” Olessa added wryly, clearly in disgusted reference to her soon-to-be son-by-marriage.

At last, Clío forced herself to loose her embrace, and Olessa turned to Trystane. She was one of only a scant handful of people allowed to put hands on the Aesha’ani king without explicit permission, and she did so now, putting her arms around him just as she had Clío. “I know there is no need to tell you to do this, but take care of her, dear. She is a precious jewel.”

Trystane regarded Clío reverently over the top of Olessa’s head as he returned the Duchess’ embrace. “I will kill and die for her, My Lady.”

Clío desperately hoped it would never actually come to that, though she supposed the former had already been done. The latter was unthinkable.

Finally, all goodbyes reluctantly said, king, queen and general mounted up, and Ryman gave the order to move out. One-by-one, royals, soldiers and nobles alike passed beneath the gates, giving up their titles and stations for the time being.

Clío realized that they were now in a sort of limbo. The same blood still flowed in their veins, but for now they had no lands, no homes to speak of. The military men had a century or more of experience between them and the prowess and speed to show for it; but they dared not go a fraction as heavily-armed and -armored as any would have liked. They wore only what light mail could be hidden by their clothing and carried only daggers or shortswords. Showmen would want to protect themselves just as anyone on the road would, but entertainers wearing breastplates and helms and carrying longswords or bows would be seen as the wrong sort of performers altogether. The relative safety of their guise might not always hold; these may also be the most dangerous roles they had ever assumed.

In the northwest of Kartha’an, another king stood at the window of his study, overlooking Dragon Harbor with the ever-snowcapped peak of the Goddess of the Sea rising in the distance to the north.

Lancel Rothford was feeling grimly contemplative, as he often did of late, but his wife, Queen Myrella, was simply distraught. She had begun to grate on his nerves days ago with her pacing and fretting over their wayward son, the self-styled King of Aesha’an.

But Lancel was well-practiced in affecting patience when he had little. Otherwise there would have been disaster upon his son’s beyond-obstinate hijacking of half his military. Well, only a quarter, really; the other quarter had been given readily enough, despite the preposterous nature of Altair’s venture. However, Lancel’s ire toward his hotheaded, overproud second son had been firmly contained; if the king was willing to risk a quarter of his army to teach his son a lesson, why not half? Kartha’an’s alliance with Rohannon was airtight, and it had an army nearly as large as the Sisters’.

“Why are we all just sitting on our hands?” Myrella irritably wondered aloud for perhaps the hundredth time. “The most formidable kingdom on Morgadesh has been invaded, and now everyone just hangs around doing nothing.” Myrella, Baroness of Ridgevale in eastern Aesha’an, had never abandoned her pride in her homeland. Lancel found that reasonable enough, but it still rankled when she referred to it as greater in any way than Kartha’an.

Pushing down his irritation at his wife, Lancel replied offhandedly, “Everyone is waiting on someone else to make the next move, or make it possible. Altair waits on Trystane to attempt the retaking of Majere, while Trystane waits on Altair to reveal his greatest weaknesses. Olessa, no doubt, doesn’t dare move too suddenly, with her only daughter and Anglica’a hanging in the balance. Julius, whatever his reasons, seems to have taken Anaemar out of it. And the rulers of Rohannon, Dunmar and Ashemar likely wait to see who is most likely to prevail in this dispute and contemplate whether or not it’s worth taking part. Though I doubt Rohan will act against Altair unless Deeanna knows I condone it.” Rohannon was the only kingdom on the continent under a matriarchy.

“And will you?” Myrella’s faint reflection in the window glass rounded on him angrily. “I meant we as in us, and everyone as in you. You certainly seem content enough to sit back and watch our son destroy himself. Do you even have any intention of backing him, at any time, in any way? He cannot possibly succeed in this if you do not! Julius has retreated, but he has made his allegiance clear, and the rest of the Triplets will likely follow if his mind changes again. Rohannon will do nothing unless you suggest it—and do not think I do not know why. Altair will soon have half of Morgadesh marching against him, and the other half simply enjoying the show! Considering that, what in bloody hells is Trystane waiting for?

Lancel let Myrella’s tirade wind down before turning to her. “My dear, it is very unbecoming for a woman to use such language,” he commented calmly. “It takes time to rally nations. It may be that that is what Julius’ apparent retreat really is: a recruiting expedition. But even if that is so, it will take no small amount of discussion. The Triplets will hardly simply leap into a war unless it stands to benefit them somehow, even if it is on the side of ‘the most formidable kingdom on Morgadesh.’”

“And meanwhile, you have Deeanna constantly ready to jump if you so much as mention frogs! Why are the Twins not marching on Anglica’a as we speak, while Altair still holds Aesha’an?”

Lancel’s patience was beginning to slip. “Myrella,” he began irritably. “You know I never supported this ridiculous notion in the first place. Why should I risk Kartha’an, and ask Deeanna to risk Rohannon, for it?”

“’Why’?” Myrella echoed shrilly. “In support of your son—why else?” Her tone turned decidedly sarcastic “Why not simply march on Altair and destroy him yourself? It will have the same result as doing nothing!”

“His arrogance must be brought to heel!” Lancel bellowed, out of patience at last. “My legacy, and that of all the Rothfords before me, could be endangered because of that arrogance, and I will not allow that!”

“He will pay for his ‘arrogance’ with his life! You would rather see him dead than arrogant?!”


The queen fell suddenly silent, angry dark eyes wide on her husband. “Well I hope you are happy, then,” she finally replied softly, unsteadily. “Because that is exactly how Altair—my son—will soon end up.”

As she swept from the study amidst a black cloud of fury, Lancel simply turned back to the window and sighed.

In southern Rohannon, on the south shore of the Serpent’s Tail, a woman who possessed the regal bearing of royalty sat in her bedchamber in the large house she shared with her son and expectant daughter-by-law, fanning herself against the summer evening heat with the parchment that bore only a few hastily-scrawled words:

A usurper king occupies the throne of our land while its rightful heir has vanished. My Lady, I beg you, we must remain unbreakable, formidable, unmovable!

She sat in deep thought for a long while, the ancient vow of House Maquesta echoing in her mind. Unbreakable, formidable, unmovable. It had come to this, despite her difficult decision to retreat to her homeland a generation ago.

She must return to Majere and put her son on that throne.

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